More than just a reflection of emotional states, a new study finds that dogs’ facial movements are potentially active attempts to communicate.
Anyone who has ever had a close relationship with their dog may have asked themself this question before: Is my dog really trying to tell me something with that face? I mean, I think most of us assume that they are, especially those of us who think our dogs are basically human; but science has long suggested that animal facial expressions are inflexible and involuntary displays of emotional states rather than active attempts to communicate.
But now a new study has been published that sets out to test that assumption, and the conclusion may not be such a surprise to dog lovers. The study, writes the authors, is “evidence that dogs are sensitive to the human’s attentional state when producing facial expressions, suggesting that facial expressions are not just inflexible and involuntary displays of emotional states, but rather potentially active attempts to communicate with others.”
For the study, the researchers videotaped facial movements of 24 dogs being presented, or not presented, with treats by a human who either faced the animal, or faced away.
After close analyses of the tapes, they found that the dogs produced many more facial expressions when the human was facing the dog, than when they were turned away – especially, they discovered, the animals were more likely to show their tongues and raise their inner eyebrows.
“Facial expression is often seen as something that is very emotionally driven and is very fixed, and so it isn’t something that animals can change depending on their circumstances,” said Bridget Waller, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Portsmouth, and an author of the study.
Interestingly, the raised eyebrows part seems directed specifically at humans ... who become silly fools for faces with big eyes. We are hardwired to respond to cute faces with pleading eyes – an instinctual response to ensure we adore our babies – and dogs have caught on, or so it seems. Of this, Waller says:
“It tells us that their facial expressions are probably responsive to humans – not just to other dogs,” said Waller. “[That] tells us something about how domestication has shaped [dogs], and that it has changed them in order to be more communicative with humans, in a sense.”
“I think this adds to a growing body of evidence that dogs are sensitive to our attention,” says Juliane Kaminski, another author of the study. “Which is not necessarily something that a dog owner would be surprised about.”
Now we just need to figure out what they're trying to say.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Via The Guardian