Many a dog owner will attest that their canine friend knows exactly how to get what it wants with nothing more than a mournful look.
Now a new study has confirmed that ‘puppy dog eyes’ are a real thing. Researchers found we’re not just anthropomorphising our pets: dogs really do make facial expressions in direct response to our attention.
What’s more, the dogs in the study didn’t produce these expressions in response to other stimulus, such as food – suggesting that their cute faces are a form of communication and not just excitement.
The study, by the University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Centre (can we work there please?), was published in Scientific Reports.
Twenty-four dogs had interactions with a “human demonstrator” was was either attending to them or turned away, sometimes with food and sometimes without.
Recording the facial movements of the dogs, the team concluded that there were “significantly more” expressions when the demonstrator was paying them attention.
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However, the food “did not affect the dogs’ behaviour”.
The paper concludes that “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.”
So they’re not just remembering that time they chased a squirrel.
The two strongest expressions produced by the dogs in response to humans was the inner eyebrow raise (making the eyes bigger) and a relaxed open mouth showing the tongue, often associated with being attentive.
We’re apparently more likely to respond well to eyebrow raising because it makes the eyes look bigger, thus making the dogs look more childlike.
The study cites previous research focusing on rescue dogs, which found that the more often dogs did the eyebrow trick, the quicker they were rehomed.
A study last year found that dogs understood human emotions. Rather than simply learn certain behaviours in order to obtain treats or affection, the research found that dogs had the ability to combine emotional cues to form an abstract mental idea of emotion – using both sound and sight to decide whether an emotion was positive or negative.
Apparently cats are pretty communicative too, we just struggle to understand them as well as we do dogs. Sorry, guys.
Images: Jairo Alzate / Mike Burke / Andy Omvik