If you have lived with a dog for at least a year (and have been paying attention) you have probably had more than one moment of suspecting your dog may be manipulating you. Think: That longing look that begs for your attention and a belly rub, or that desperate look that says, ‘I simply must have that treat.’, or that urgent, pleading look that says, ‘ C’mon, C’mon, C’MON. Let’s take a walk NOW!’. Well, suspect no more. The science is in and the answer is: Yes, dogs do exaggerate their facial expressions to get what they want from us.
The key hypothesis was: Dogs voluntarily communicate via facial expressions to persuade humans to give them what they want and need. A good way to test this hypothesis is with food. Food is stimulating for dogs so the researchers at the University of Portsmouth Dog Cognition Centre wanted to determine whether dogs’ reactions to food changed depending on a human’s attentiveness. This would test whether the dogs behaved differently with a person paying attention to them, and if they did, it would suggest that the differences in facial expressions are voluntary. Conversely, if dogs make faces involuntarily, they’d be expected to make the same faces when they get food alone or around people.
The research team devised an experiment to investigate whether dogs’ facial expressions are subject to ‘audience effects’, which simply means that they wanted to see whether dogs made different faces when they thought they weren’t being watched. If dogs make more facial expressions when humans are watching this would suggest that dogs are voluntarily controlling their facial expressions–and if this is the case, it changes what scientists and veterinarians have believed to be true about animal behavior.
To test their hypothesis, researchers presented dogs with four different conditions: (1) paying attention to the dog while giving it food; (2) paying attention to the dog but not giving it food; (3) giving the dog food but not paying attention; (4) not paying attention and not giving food. (source)
The researchers found that dogs reacted with more noticeable facial expressions when humans were around than when there were no humans around, suggesting that dogs do in fact use facial expressions to voluntarily communicate. More specifically, the researchers uncovered two important findings: (1) Human attention affected the production of dogs’ facial expressions. Dogs produced significantly more facial expressions when the human was oriented towards them, than when the human had her back turned to the dog; and (2) The visibility of food did not affect the dogs’ behaviors. In other words, the faces your dog makes are less about the food you have in your hand and more about getting you to do what s/he wants.
Your dog: an expert at using facial expressions to communicate and manipulate you to get what s/he wants and needs. You: a willing and grateful participant. In this artful salsa of communication between the species it is less about who is leading and who is following than it is about both partners reaping the benefits and enjoying the dance.
Journal Reference: Kaminski, J., Hynds, J., Morris, P. et al. Human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs. Scientific Reports, 7, 12914 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-12781-x
Posted by Ian; Special thanks to Peter Hess, Inverse for bringing this research into the daylight