Dogs Attempt to Use Facial Expressions to Communicate With Us

Hey dog owners, you’re not imagining it: Researchers think your pooch may be trying to say something with a pout or pleading eyes.

Everyone who lives with dogs may be rolling their eyes right about now and saying “Of course Boopsie/Rex/Potato is smiling/frowning/expressing wide-eyed existential dread,” but heaps of anecdotal evidence don’t mean much in terms of scientific cred. A study out today, however, is a big step toward confirming that dogs use facial expressions in an attempt to communicate with humans.

Within our extended primate clan, particularly orangutans and gibbons, there is evidence that individuals modulate their facial expressions based on whether there’s an audience, which suggests they’re using the expressions as a form of communication. But there’s been no evidence that’s the case among non-primates — their facial expressions have generally been considered involuntary and reflexive displays of emotion.

Interested in testing that notion, researchers from the University of Portsmouth designed an experiment to determine whether the facial expressions of dogs change in the presence of a human audience.

The team recorded the faces of 24 pet dogs, ages 1-12 years, in four different scenarios: with or without food present, and with a human facing them or turned away. Analyzing video of the animals, the researchers found that food (or lack thereof) wasn’t a factor in the dogs’ reactions — but human attention was. Fido and friends produced significantly more distinct facial expressions when the human faced them.

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SOURCE: Discover Magazine, Gemma Tarlach