Dogs making faces

SENSORSPOT/E+/GETTY IMAGES (PITBULL); CATHERINE LEDNER/DIGITAL VISION/ GETTY IMAGES (FRISE); STEVE HICKEY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO (GREYHOUND)

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.D, LS4.C

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 1

TEKS: 6.2A, 7.2A, 8.2A, B.2B, B.2E

Hey, Human!

Are dogs’ facial expressions trying to tell us something?

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how dogs respond when you talk to them. Why might they react this way?

You wave a treat in front of your pet pooch, cooing, “Who’s a good boy?” Your dog widens his eyes hopefully, pants, does a happy jig, and wags his tail. It’s like he’s trying to say, “I really am a good boy! Now gimme that treat!”

Interactions like this make it easy to assume that when we talk to our canine companions, they’re trying to communicate back. Because of their facial expressions and body language, “we get the impression that dogs understand everything we say to them,” says Juliane Kaminski. She’s an animal psychologist at the University of Portsmouth in England.

But are dogs really trying to talk to us? Kaminski and a team of scientists set out to investigate.

You wave a treat in front of your dog and say, “Who’s a good boy?” Your dog widens his eyes hopefully. He pants, does a happy dance, and wags his tail. It’s like he’s trying to say, “I really am a good boy! Now give me that treat!”

When we talk to our dogs, are they trying to communicate back? Exchanges like this one make it easy to think so. Because of their facial expressions and body language, “we get the impression that dogs understand everything we say to them,” says Juliane Kaminski. She’s an animal psychologist at the University of Portsmouth in England.

But are dogs really trying to talk to us? Kaminski and a team of scientists decided to find out.

COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF PORTSMOUTH/HELEN YATES

SOCIAL SCIENTIST: Juliane Kaminski studies how animals interact and communicate.

PAWS AND EFFECTS

Kaminski recruited 24 dogs of different breeds to participate in an experiment. In a quiet room, she had the dogs’ owners perform four actions, one at a time. Each person faced his or her dog while holding a treat and then faced the dog with no treat. Next, owners faced a wall while holding a treat, and then faced the wall without a treat. A camera recorded the dogs’ facial expressions during each trial.

Later, Kaminski reviewed the images and assigned a code to each expression the dogs made. Then she looked for patterns in the data. Kaminski found that the dogs changed expressions more often when they could see their owners’ faces. It didn’t matter if their owner was holding a tasty treat or not.

Kaminski set up an experiment with 24 dogs of different breeds. In a quiet room, she had the dogs’ owners perform four actions, one at a time. Each person faced his or her dog and held a treat. Then each person faced the dog with no treat. Next, owners held a treat and faced a wall. Then they faced the wall without a treat. A camera recorded the dogs’ facial expressions during each action.

Later, Kaminski looked at the images. She gave a code to each expression the dogs made. Then she looked for patterns in the data, and she found something. The dogs changed expressions more often when they could see their owners’ faces. It didn’t matter if their owner was holding a tasty treat or not. 

BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE

The results suggest that the dogs weren’t just looking for food—they were trying to send a message to their owners. What exactly were the pups trying to say? It’s tempting to think they wanted to tell their owners they were happy to see them or begging for a treat. But no one can know for sure what the dogs were feeling.

These findings fit in with Kaminski’s previous research. In one study, she found that dogs were less likely to steal food from people’s plates if people were looking at them. This suggests that eye contact, which is important for communication, is significant to dogs.

In another study, Kaminski found that dogs who raise their eyebrows more often tend to get adopted more quickly. Interestingly, that expression was one the dogs in her recent study made again and again. “It’s the typical puppy dog eyes that every dog owner falls for,” says Kaminski. It clearly causes a powerful reaction in people: making our hearts melt.

The results suggest that the dogs weren’t just looking for food. They were also trying to send a message to their owners. What were the dogs trying to say? Maybe they wanted to tell their owners they were happy to see them. Or maybe they were begging for a treat. But no one can really know what the dogs were feeling.

These findings match Kaminski’s earlier research. In one study, dogs could steal food from people’s plates. When people were looking at the dogs, the dogs were less likely to steal the food. Eye contact is important for communication, and the study suggests that eye contact matters to dogs.

In another study, Kaminski saw that some dogs raise their eyebrows more often. Those dogs tended to get adopted faster. And the dogs in her recent study made that same expression again and again. “It’s the typical puppy dog eyes that every dog owner falls for,” says Kaminski. That expression clearly has a powerful effect on people. It makes our hearts melt.  

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