A new study reveals that the infamous look in a puppy’s eyes is not a way for our beloved pets to express sadness; in fact, it may be a clever ploy for dogs to gain attention and affection.
Researchers from the University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Center report that dogs mostly use facial expressions in the presence of a human, while very rarely adopting them when on their own. The findings question the assumption that our canine pets‘ facial expressions are involuntary and tied to their emotional state. Rather, they might just be a medium to communicate and are usually a direct response to attention or a request for one.
Reading: Dogs with puppy eyes
a dog’s life
Anyone who has befriended a dog knows what puppy dog eyes are all about. it’s fairly simple to pull off: all dogs have to do is raise their eyebrows, making the eyes appear larger and (to a human) sadder. but boy, is it effective at getting the attention of any face-slapped human?
that, according to a team led by dr. juliane kaminski, is exactly the point. After their study, with the goal of understanding whether dogs’ facial expressions are “subject to hearing effects and/or changes in response to an arousing stimulus (eg, food),” the team reports that the Dogs don’t involuntarily make facial expressions when they’re excited, they do it to impress us.
“We can now be sure that the production of facial expressions made by dogs depends on the attentional state of their audience and is not just the result of the dogs’ arousal,” explains Dr. kaminski. “In our study, they produced a lot more expressions when someone was looking, but seeing treats didn’t have the same effect.
The findings suggest that dogs are sensitive to human attention and, more excitingly, that their facial expressions are active attempts at communication, not involuntary emotional displays.
For the study, the team worked with 24 dogs, all family pets but of various breeds, from 1 to 12 years of age. each dog was on its leash one meter away from a human participant. The dogs’ faces were filmed in all test scenarios, from the person looking intently at the dog to the distraction, with his body turned away from the animal. The team looked at three measures to establish why dogs make facial expressions: attentive versus inattentive, food present versus food absent, and a test.
for this last measurement, the experimenter “kept still and did not respond to any of the dog’s behaviors”, and was asked to look at “a predetermined point on the opposite wall and […] not actively look for the eye contact with the dog. dog when she was facing the dog.” the test lasted 2 minutes, after which the experimenter briefly interacted with the dog and then “changed her position according to the condition presented in the next test”.
puppy eyes: they are all lies
Overall, the scientists report, the single most important factor dictating how likely the dogs were to show facial expressions was attention. Almost all human-dog interactions elicited a facial expression in response from the animals, and would drop them when a human was no longer directly watching the animals — this held true through the food and trial steps as well. The “eyebrow raiser” (puppy dog eyes) and the “tongue show” were the two facial expressions that dogs produced “significantly more of” when a human was orientated towards them.
“Human attentional status also affected other dog behaviors, the frequency of vocalizations produced,” the team wrote. “However, the visibility of the food did not affect the dogs’ facial movements, and there is also no conclusive evidence that it affected any of the dogs’ other behaviors.”
In short, what this means is that dogs produced more facial expressions when a human was facing them and in a position to communicate (ie, not blatantly ignoring the dog). It’s not just a fluke, either: the sight of food (which is a powerful arousal stimulus) did not have a similar effect on the animals’ facial movements, suggesting that these were specifically intended for humans and not a general reaction to humans. an emotion or state of excitement. The findings further help strengthen previous research that suggests a person’s gaze is a key element of human-dog communication; for example, previous work has shown that dogs will follow a human’s communicative gestures, such as pointing or looking, but will ignore such gestures when the human’s eyes are open. not directed at the dog.
dogs may have learned this communication trick when they were domesticated, dr. Kaminski believes.
“Domestic dogs have a unique history: They have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years, and during that time, selection pressures appear to have acted on dogs’ ability to communicate with us,” he said. “We knew that domestic dogs paid attention to the attention of humans; in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when humans had their eyes closed or their backs turned.”
“This study advances what we understand about canine cognition. now we know that dogs make more facial expressions when the human pays attention to them.”
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However, the team notes that while they found that a human’s attention corresponded to an increase in all of the dogs’ facial movements, there was no indication that the animals “specifically modulated their facial movements” according to the level of attention of the human being. attention.
one last interesting observation concerns the two most common expressions that the dog produces when interacting with humans. a relaxed open mouth showing the tongue is generally described in the literature as a pose signifying attention, which would make sense in the context of the study. the role of the expression “puppy dog eyes”, however, is less clear. despite this, the team notes that it “may have had the greatest influence on [genetic] selection” during domestication, citing work that showed shelter dogs producing this expression “relocated more frequently and faster” .
The team has two theories as to why this is happening. first is that the expression of the puppy’s eyes resembles facial movements that indicate sadness in humans, “potentially making humans feel more empathic with dogs that produce more of this movement”, second, by making the eyes more larger and more baby-like, the adorable facial expression could tap into our preference for pedomorphic characters (adults who retain baby characteristics)” and/or the innate tendency of humans to respond to ostensive cues, one of which is amazing”
Regardless of the exact reason, humans seem to be particularly sensitive to this facial expression in dogs. resorting to the puppy dog eyes argument more often when interacting with humans would benefit the dogs by strengthening the bond between the two, a powerful selective pressure during domestication. Ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether the dog’s behavior stems from an understanding of a human’s mental state, or simply a programmed or learned response to seeing another individual’s face or eyes.
But one thing is for sure: puppy eyes work, dogs know it and are not ashamed to use it. not that we care.
the article “human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs” has been published in the journal nature.
This article originally appeared in 2017.
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