Dogs use facial expressions to communicate

Pablo Tucker
October 20, 2017

"The results could indicate that dogs are sensitive to the attention of the human, and their expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, and not just displays emotional", explains the researcher.

Most mammals use facial expressions to let each other know how they're feeling and what they want, from baring their teeth to show aggression, to raising their eyebrows to make their eyes large and sad-looking.

Research in non-human primates has suggested some of our far-flung cousins may also be aware that others can read their facial expressions - which changed when they had an audience.

The research joins a number of studies probing the extraordinary relationship between humans and their canine companions, including work suggesting dogs understand both the words and the tone of human speech.


Researchers studied 24 family pets, with each tied by a lead a metre away from a person.

In fact, scientists at the university's Dog Cognition Centre recently found that dogs are more likely to show facial expressions if humans are paying attention to them. "If dogs produced those facial movements with the intent to manipulate us, that would have been the condition where we might have expected them to do something different, but they didn't".

That kind of information can be useful, for instance, for screening would-be service dogs and in making decisions about adopting a puppy, he added.

They determined that dogs were more expressive when a human was facing them as opposed to when their bodies were turned away, and found that while food, described as a "non-social but arousing stimulus", had no impact on their behavior.


The study suggested doggy expressions were not simply the result of internal emotions, but could be a mechanism of communication.

"Domestic dogs have a unique history - they have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs' ability to communicate with us".

Even the most thick-skinned people may find their heart melting when a dog makes eyes at them.

"When we're interacting with our dogs, we're not totally in control of how we view them and the opinion we have of them", he said.


However, the team stressed the research does not shed light on what the dogs might be trying to communicate, or whether the movements are intentional.

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