Definitive evidence that dogs change their facial expressions in response to human attention has been found for the first time. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Centre have found that dogs not only move their faces in response to human attention, but actually produce more facial expressions when a human is looking.
“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,” leading researcher Dr Juliane Kaminski explains on Science Daily. “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 dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays.”
Puppy-dog eyes, where dogs raise their brows, was one of the features examined in the study, which analysed 24 dogs aged between 1 and 12. All of the dogs were domesticated and of different breeding. To conduct the study, the dogs’ faces were filmed while tied 1 metre away from a person who moved through a number of motions, such as turning to the animal and looking away.
DogFACS, a coding system that measures facial variations connected to muscle motion, was the main tool used for analysing the dogs’ expressions. “DogFACS captures movements from all the different muscles in the canine face, many of which are capable of producing very subtle and brief facial movements,” co-author Professor Bridget Waller explains. “FACS systems were originally developed for humans, but have since been modified for use with other animals such as primates and dogs.”
Previously, animals have been thought to change facial expressions according to their emotional state. Now it is clear they, like humans, react according to those around them. Dr Kaminski said the findings could be a result of the domestication process. “We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is – in a previous study we found [that] dogs stole food more often when the human’s eyes were closed or they had their back turned. In another study,” she continues, “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.”
Despite the new revelations, it remains unclear whether dogs actually understand human’s expressions or are simply able to learn and enact responses to them. Regardless, the study is a step further in understanding a dog’s abilities to communicate and feel human emotions. “This study moves forward what we understand about dog cognition,” Dr Kaminski says.
The full study is published in Scientific Reports.
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