When your dog gives you those sad “puppy dog eyes,” leading you to give in to his every whim and demand, it’s almost as if he knows what he’s doing. Or does he? New research suggests your dog may be quite aware that giving you “that” look will get him an extra treat or spot to snuggle on your bed.
While most mammals do produce facial expressions of some sort, it’s long been assumed that when animals raise their eyebrows, smile or grimace, it’s just an involuntary response to an emotional state.
Dogs, however, have been living alongside humans for about 30,000 years, during which time they’ve become quite attuned to humans’ attention and direction. Researchers in the U.K. at University of Portsmouth wanted to find out if, indeed, dogs alter their facial expressions based on their audience, and you probably have a good idea of how the study turned out.
Is Your Dog Really Giving You Puppy Dog Eyes?
The study of 24 dogs presented each with four scenarios, all involving a stranger they’d never seen before. The person faced the dog holding a treat, faced the dog without a treat, faced away from the dog with a treat and faced away from the dog without a treat. A camera monitored the interactions, allowing researchers to analyze the dog’s facial expressions throughout.
Of particular note was the facial movement known as Action Unit 101 (AU 101), which involves raising the inner eyebrow. This, in turn, makes the eyes appear bigger and more child-like. Past research found that the more shelter dogs made the AU 101 facial movement, the more quickly they found new homes.
It turned out that the dogs in the study made more facial expressions, particularly AU 101, the puppy dog eyes, when the human was facing them, which suggests they were altering their facial expressions in response to the person’s attention (or lack thereof). Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers explained:
“Dogs produced significantly more facial movements when the human was attentive than when she was not. The food, however, as a non-social but arousing stimulus, did not affect the dogs’ behavior.
The current study is therefore 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.”
Dogs Have Developed Many Ways of Communicating With Humans
“Dogs read human gestures and communicative signals in ways other animals can’t,” study leader Dr J. Kaminski, told National Geographic, and this indeed appears to be the case.
For instance, one study found that when dogs were told not to take a piece of food, some of them still stole it anyway — but did so more often when the human’s eyes were closed, her back was turned or she was distracted. Studies on wolf and dog puppies also reveal clues that dogs’ interactions with humans are advanced and unique.
In a study of 10 pet dogs, 10 shelter dogs and 10 wolves given three opportunities to open a puzzle box, dogs spent much more time gazing at the human than the wolves did. The dogs that had previously failed to open the puzzle box were then given another chance, during which a human used gestures and spoke positively to encourage the dogs to keep trying.
This resulted in more of the dogs succeeding in opening the box and all the dogs spent much more time trying to solve the puzzle than they had previously. Domestic dogs are also more likely to make direct eye contact with humans than wolves raised in the same environment.
This simple difference may be responsible for a key part of the differences between dogs and socialized wolves, according to research in Current Biology.
“Since looking behavior has an important function in initializing and maintaining communicative interaction in human communication systems, we suppose that by positive feedback processes (both evolutionary and ontogenetically) the readiness of dogs to look at the human face has led to complex forms of dog-human communication that cannot be achieved in wolves even after extended socialization,” the researchers wrote.
While wolves have adapted their own form of gaze signals to help them hunt in packs, dogs look at human faces to read emotional signals and more.
Is Your Dog Trying to Manipulate You?
The featured study stopped short of concluding that dogs, in making the puppy dog face, were trying to manipulate the human into giving them food. In fact, it was the attention of the human, and not the presence of food, that seemed to prompt the puppy dog eyes in the study.
“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,” Kaminski said.
So for now, it’s up to you to decide whether your dog knows what he’s doing when he gives you those puppy dog eyes — and whether to give in to them. But it seems clear that dogs do indeed pay close attention to when you’re watching them and likely make adjustments based on your attention level and feedback.
As the researchers concluded, “Facial expressions are often considered to be an automatic, reflexive and emotionally based system, but these data point to a more flexible system (at least in domestic dogs) combining both emotional and potentially cognitive processes.” In other words, your dog may decide when it’s time to pull out those hard-to-resist puppy dog eyes.
in the Moab Area
Corona Arch - Easy/Moderate. 1.3 Miles one way. Trailhead is 25 minute drive from Moab.
North on US-191 to Potash Road (Utah 279).
Mill Creek Pathway - Easy. 1.1 Miles. Little to no driving. Starts at the intersection of 100 South and 100 West,
a block off of Main Street.
Portal Overlook - Hard. 2.0 Miles one way. Trailhead is 20 minute drive from Moab.
North on US-191 to Potash Road (Utah 279).
Grandstaff Canyon - Moderate. 2.0 Miles one way. Trailhead is 10-minute drive from Moab.
North on US-191 to the River Road (Utah 128)