If you have a dog, you’ll know the look. The big, sad eyes, the raised brows – these are the components of the infamous ‘puppy dog face’. Maybe you suspect it’s all an act, a conscious trick to manipulate you into giving your pet the attention, food or activity they crave. Or perhaps you believe your dog really is as sweet and innocent as the face suggests.
We know that dogs can interpret human emotions, and bond with their owners via the same hormonal mechanism in which mothers bond with their new-borns. But now a new study provides evidence that not only are facial expressions in dogs voluntary, but certain expressions are reserved just for humans.
Twenty-four dogs took part in the study, all of them family pets of various breeds and ages. Each one was tied to a lead in a small, quiet room, where a researcher stood a metre away with her eyes trained on the back wall. A video camera recorded the dogs’ facial expressions as the researcher stood in different positions: facing the dog and displaying food; facing the dog without food; facing away from the dog and displaying food; and facing away from the dog without food.
Amazingly, the results revealed that the dogs showed significantly more facial expressions (notably ‘puppy eyes’ and sticking their tongues out) when the person was facing them. This occurred regardless of whether they displayed food or not. Previously, it has been assumed that dogs produced facial expressions involuntarily as a reflection of their inner emotional state. However, since the emotionally-stimulating presence of food had no significant effect on the frequency of facial expressions, we can infer that dogs actively produce facial expressions in order to communicate with humans, but perhaps not to trick you into feeding them.
So why do we find ourselves drawn to a dog producing ‘puppy eyes’? The report suggests that in making their eyes look bigger, dogs appear more infant-like, therefore exploiting humans’ fondness towards childlike characteristics. This behaviour would have encouraged humans to feed and care for dogs as they first became domesticated, and so the behaviour continued to evolve as a result.
But what can we take away from all this? Firstly, we must be careful not to anthropomorphise. Humans have a tendency to project our own complex motivations and feelings onto other animals, for example: The wide eyes and raised brows of the ‘puppy dog face’ suggest sadness and vulnerability in humans, but there is no evidence that this is what dogs are conveying. Juliane Kaminski, one of the scientists behind the study, cautions, “Seeing the food plus seeing the human being attentive does not make the dogs want to look super cute.” However, the study does provide evidence that dogs actively seek to communicate with us, we’re just not sure if there’s a particular message, or what it may be.
Secondly, we can conclude that dogs can tell if a human is paying attention to them or not, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Further research could perhaps explore whether dogs adjust their facial expressions around humans that they know compared to those they are unfamiliar with.
Ultimately, this study can tell us that your pet isn’t trying to manipulate you with its facial expressions, but it probably is trying to engage you. So next time your pet gives you that adorable, sad face, you can safely assume it knows exactly what’s doing – but, either way, nobody can say no to puppy dog eyes.