If you’ve looked into a dog’s soulful eyes and watched his eyebrows lift, you already know what scientists have today confirmed: dogs may use their facial expressions to communicate with us. Though what exactly they’re trying to say is still a mystery — at least as far as scientists are concerned.
Dogs of different breeds were put in a room with a person, who was asked to either face the dog or a wall. And when the people were facing the dogs, the dogs reacted by raising their eyebrows, sticking out their tongues, and making noise — much more often than when the people turned their backs on the dogs. This behavior suggests that dogs recognize when people are paying attention to them, and control their facial expressions accordingly, according to a study published today in the journal Scientific Reports.
We know already that dogs are pretty smart, and recognize when we pay attention to them: one study found that, after being told to lie down, dogs stayed lying down most often and the longest when the owner watched them, compared to when the owner read a book, watched TV, turned their back on the dog, or left the room. “In their interaction with us, they’re sensitive to what we are doing,” says study co-author Paul Morris, principal lecturer in the psychology department of the University of Portsmouth. Today’s study is “one bit more evidence that there’s a sort of genuine social bond between human and animal.”
Dogs and people have been living — and evolving — together for about 30,000 years. So it’s quite natural that we’ve developed a pretty strong bond with our furry friends. In fact, through the years, humans have selected and bred dogs that like interacting with us, Morris says. But just how far this level of interaction goes, and how much control dogs have over it, is still an open question.
Studying facial expressions is one way to get some answers. In humans, facial expressions are a language in and of themselves: a quick grimace or smile to your friend across the room can communicate exactly what you’re feeling. In animals, what role facial expressions play — and how intentional they are — is not so clear. In one study, shelter dogs found new homes faster if they raised their eyebrows more often. This could be because raising the eyebrows makes the dog’s eyes look bigger, more infant-like — which taps into our preference for baby faces. Whether the dogs were raising their eyebrows intentionally is hard to say, but it could be that they evolved this kind of facial expression to help them receive more attention, or more food, from people, says Tiziano Travain, who researches dog emotion at the Università degli studi di Parma in Italy.
For today’s study, researchers wanted to see if dogs’ facial expressions respond to whether or not people pay attention. They selected 24 family dogs of different breeds — from Labradors to border collies to boxers — and placed them in a room with a person. Sometimes, the person was facing the dog, either holding a treat or empty-handed; other times, the person was giving their back to the dog, again either holding food or not. The researchers found that the dogs had more facial expressions — including raising their eyebrows and showing their tongues — and made more noise when the person was facing the dog, paying attention to him. The presence of food had no effect.
The findings suggest that dogs are bright enough to realize that it’s worth making those facial expressions — to possibly try to communicate or get some sort of social interaction — when the human being is paying attention, Morris says. What exactly those facial movements mean, however, is impossible to say for now, says study co-author Juliane Kaminski, a lecturer in the psychology department of the University of Portsmouth. “Does it mean dogs understand that they could actually alter our behavior with their facial movements?” Kaminski writes in an email to The Verge. “We do not know. But it is most certainly a future question we will be interested in.”
The study has some limitations: it only involved 24 dogs, and more dogs should be put to test to confirm the findings, says Travain, who was not involved in the research. Travain says he was surprised that the food didn’t prompt more of a reaction in the dogs, but then again, all dogs are different. Travain says he’s owned four dogs in his life: three really loved their food, while the one he owns now is different. “He would ignore a piece of meat if he could receive a cuddle,” Travain says.
Still, understanding this interaction can tell us more about how we and our best friends evolved together — and how this social bonding works. “That’s why we get animals, we want them to interact with us and that’s what we find touching and endearing,” Morris says, “and facial expressions is just a part of that.”