If you’re one of the many dog owners around the world, you might notice that when you look at your dog, there’s a little twitch of the ears, a tilt of the head and perhaps even the infamous “puppy dog eyes.” Many have thought that this was a way of your dog telling you that he or she wants food, but scientists say they really just want your attention.
Dogs are trying to communicate with their humans when you’re looking at them, and it isn’t just because they’re feeling more energetic. “We can now be confident that 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,” study co-author Juliane Kaminski said. “Dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays.”
The study only included domesticated pet dogs, and found that when their owners were looking at them, they offered significantly more facial expressions than when they were being ignored or even offered food. All of the dogs in the study were between the ages of one and 12 years old, and were properly trained, while being tied to a pole one meter away from their owners.
The facial expressions that the dogs made were measured in four different scenarios. This included being offered food while the owner was or wasn’t looking, and also with no food in the room while the owner looked or ignored their dogs. For the many that feel a connection with their dogs, you can feel a bit happier knowing that the feeling is actually mutual.
“Domestic dogs have a unique history – they have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years,” Kaminski said. “And during that time, selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs’ ability to communicate with us.” Prior studies have shown that dogs are completely aware of when their being ignored, which is why they sometimes steal food. “This study moves forward what we understand about dog cognition,” Kaminski added. “We now know dogs make more facial expressions when the human is paying attention.”
Years ago, many scientists believed that the expression on a dog’s face was completely random, but studies have changed that thinking throughout the years. Now, it turns out that dogs have 16 unique facial expressions, while humans have 27. That puts dogs just behind horses, who can produce 17 facial expressions, which is another reason why domestic horses can make for great pets.
Paul Morris was another author of the study, and he reiterated that “In their interaction with us, they’re sensitive to what we are doing. This includes giving commands and what type of activity you’re doing, including sleep. This study is “one bit more evidence that there’s sort of a genuine social bond between human and animal.” When asked if facial expressions change a dog’s behavior, Kaminski said “We do not know, but it is most certainly a future question we will be interested in.”
The study by Kaminski and Morris’s team concluded that “We have demonstrated that dogs’ production of facial expressions is subject to audience effects, and can be tailored to the human attentional state suggesting some communicative function and are not simple emotional displays based on the dogs arousal state. Facial expressions are often considered to be an automatic, reflexive and emotionally based system3, but these data point to a more flexible system (at least in domestic dogs) combining both emotional and potentially cognitive processes.”
As for which facial expression got the biggest response, it was certainly the puppy dog eyes. The study said that “it seems that humans are particularly responsive to this facial movement in dogs,” when their eyebrows raise and eyes open wide. “Increased production of this movement in response to human attention could benefit dogs in their interactions with humans.”
Because of that special connection, “That’s why we get animals,” Morris said. “We want them to interact with us and that’s what we find touching and endearing, and facial expressions is just a part of that.” Let that be a reminder that the next time your dog looks you right in the eyes that they might not want that extra treat, but instead want you to pay attention and pet them.