Does your canine chum have you wrapped around their little paw? As well as being furry, full of fun and fabulously loyal – which are all fantastic and loveable canine traits – your dog’s ability to melt your heart could be down to the variety of facial expressions they employ. The most potent of these is ‘puppy dog eyes’, which, as every canine knows, is the fail-safe way to press your human’s soppy button. And now scientists have proved that dogs know exactly what they’re doing.
You looking at me?
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Centre are the first to find clear evidence that dogs move their faces in direct response to human attention. The team undertaking the project observed that when dogs saw tasty food, they became excited, but didn’t respond with more facial expressions. However, when someone was watching them, they did – suggesting that canines produce facial expressions specifically to communicate.
Dog cognition expert Dr Juliane Kaminski, who led the study, says: “We can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited. In our study they produced far more expressions when someone was watching – but seeing food treats did not have the same effect. The findings appear to support evidence that dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays.”
DID YOU KNOW?
When your dog stares at you, he or she is communicating in a way reserved just for their human. Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest found that dogs are the only non-primate animal to look people in the eyes. This is a unique behaviour between dogs and humans — dogs seek out eye contact from people, but not their biological dog parents.
Most mammals produce facial expressions, but it’s long been assumed that these are involuntary and dependent on an individual animal’s emotional state rather than being flexible responses to the audience. The Portsmouth team’s research challenges this. The reason why dogs are able to use facial expressions so well is likely to be because they’ve been around humans for so long.
Don’t look now
Dr Kaminski adds: “Domestic dogs have a unique history – they have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs’ ability to communicate with us. We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is – in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when the human’s eyes were closed, or they had their back turned. In another study, we found dogs follow the gaze of a human if the human first establishes eye contact with the dog, so the dog knows the gaze-shift is directed at them. This study moves forward what we understand about dog cognition. We now know dogs make more facial expressions when the human is paying attention.”
The most commonly used expression by the 24 dogs that took part in the research was ‘brow raising’, which makes the eyes look bigger – so called ‘puppy dog eyes’. This is a facial expression which, in humans, closely resembles sadness. This potentially makes humans more empathetic towards the dog who uses the expression, or because it makes the dog’s eyes appear bigger and more infant-like – potentially tapping into humans’ preference for child-like characteristics. Regardless of the mechanism, humans are particularly responsive to that expression – and your dog knows it.
How did the team get their results?
- The researchers at University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Centre studied 24 dogs of various breeds, aged one to 12. All were family pets.
- Each dog was tied by a lead a metre away from a person, and the dogs’ faces were filmed throughout a range of exchanges, from the person being oriented towards the dog, to being distracted and with her body turned away from the dog.
- The dogs’ facial expressions were measured using DogFACS, an anatomically based coding system which gives a reliable and standardised measurement of subtle and brief facial changes linked to underlying muscle movement.
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