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DOGS REACT TO HUMAN FACIAL EXPRESSIONS

Barbara (BJ) Andrews, Science Editor, SAAB, AKC Master Breeder

 

University Study confirms what dog trainers and owners have always known; dogs love happy faces, fear frowns – but here’s what you didn’t know about eyes.

 

The University of Helsinki studied responses of 31 dogs when they were presented with photographs of people with different facial expressions. The researchers interspersed the human faces with different breeds of dogs, all showing either a threatening, pleasant, or neutral expression.

 

As the photos changed on the screen, another machine directed infrared light at the dog’s eyes (was that safe?) to measure and record the eye movements. The result was pretty clear in that dogs read human facial expressions. Dogs look first at the eyes to gauge mood and intent. Then they look at the middle of the face whether human or canine. The report explained that “different emotions are associated with different patterns of wrinkles on the snout.” To that we would add that flared nostrils in both humans and animals communicate both fear and aggression depending on the situation. Picture a startled horse or an angry man. The open nostrils are easily seen on a horse but you’ve seen in people, even children.

 

Surprisingly the Finnish study showed that dogs look least at the mouth. No explanation was offered other than the observation that people (who were also tested) “spend a lot of time looking at the mouth to decode emotional expressions.” My personal opinion is that dogs do notice another dog’s mouth as in a dog simply lifting its lips to signal “don’t come any closer to my food bowl.”

 

The report concluded that “dogs paid more attention when the expression was threatening.” What was interesting is that the dogs actually tried to avoid looking at photos of “negative or threatening human faces.” Observant dog owners know dogs will look away when we are angry and seek eye contact to enforce a scolding, so clearly, dogs can read what’s coming even in a photo of someone else’s face.

 

“The ability to recognize human facial expressions, as well as other human cues, does not appear to be innate. Rather the dogs acquire it as they come to associate, say, a smile with a reward, like extra doggie treats or affection,” according to Monique Udell, who studies canine cognition and behavior at the University of Florida. She explained "We know that dogs are very good at picking up on subtle cues given by humans” and “It is interesting that picture discriminations of this type can be trained in dogs as well.”

 

Have you ever sat very still and observed your mother dog silently teach her puppies? They quickly learn to watch her posture and facial expression. When beginning to find meat interesting, the pups will try to invade her food bowl or check out her juicy bone. They will be met with utter stillness of her body and lifted lips. She may firmly plant her chin on the edge of the food bowl or on top of her bone, a clear signal of possession any human can recognize. Look closer and you’ll note her facial expression has changed, she is looking “hard” at her toddlers, and if they come closer, she’ll “show teeth” before resorting to snapping at a particularly bold (or stupid) puppy.

 

Miho Nagasawa of Azabu University, writing for Animal Cognition says "This study has shown that dogs that live closely with humans are also able to recognize positive facial expressions, indicating that these dogs have acquired the social skills helpful to survive. The ability to learn to discriminate human facial expressions must have helped dogs to adapt to human society."

 

Well, you already knew dogs look at your face and read your expression but it’s nice to know that other smart people do too. Then, just when you think the professor knows more than you do, he says “The reason for this difference is not clear. We can speculate that it might have to do with evolution and the genetic wiring of animals.” The scientist probably doesn’t own a dog but he is observant about human nature and dog behavior. “…people tend to avoid coming in contact with situations which do not seem to be set up for a happy outcome, and so it appears to be with dogs. The dogs often engage in a sort of "ostrich — head in the sand" behavior, to avoid confronting anything negative, and in this case it involves not looking at or paying attention to a human face which has an angry expression.”

 

Most handlers and professional dog trainers know all of this. They avoid frowning and to keep the dog happy and enthusiastic about performing, they too put on a happy face. Dogs respond more to our emotions than any other non-human species. Dogs don’t fake expressions. When they have a happy face, the “smile” is absolutely genuine.

 

They make it their business to read our mood, avoiding our anger, making us laugh just when we’re ready to cry, and by always, always “being there” when we need them. Just thinking about how and why dogs came to us is enough to make you smile. So put on your happy face and give your best friend a hug!

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