Do Dogs Read Facial Features?

Rover wins the trophy for decoding human emotions.
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Dogs appear to be pretty good at reading human expressions. Their uncanny ability to pick up on subtle cues given by humans may have been nothing more than a survival skill necessary to adapt to and live alongside humankind.

A Mutual Understanding

Humans have studied dogs for some time to understand their body language and behavior. Interestingly, humans are not the only ones doing the studying. Turns out, dogs study humans, too. They rely on visual cues from humans to read emotions. In particular, studies show dogs seem capable of discriminating human facial expressions and can somewhat recognize smiling faces.

A Look Into Studies

In a recent Nagasawa study, nine dogs were shown pictures of their owners and strangers both smiling and looking neutral. Through training, the dogs were capable of learning how to discriminate between the smiling faces and the blank, neutral faces. When the dogs were later exposed to photographs of the owners smiling and blank faces, the dogs selected the owners' smiling faces considerably more often than expected by chance. Further studies demonstrated as well how dogs tend to react differently to actors performing a range of emotional facial expressions.

A Learned Experience

The ability to recognize facial features in humans appears to be something dogs aren't born with; rather, it seems to be a learned behavior. In other words, Rover most likely learns through associative learning that smiles are predictors of good things, particularly when smiles come along with pats and treats. He therefore learns to pair smiles with treats and affection, according to Monique Udell, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

An Adaptation Strategy

While dogs bare their pearly whites to demonstrate aggression, humans show teeth as a universal expression of friendliness and happiness. These behaviors are on opposite sides of the sociability spectrum, yet dogs appear to have come to understand the meaning of the facial expression in humans. This suggests that dogs have acquired special skills that are key to survival. By learning to discriminate human facial expressions, dogs have learned how to adapt to a human-based society, according to Nagasawa and his team.

A Different Look

If you're wondering if Rover is able to read the facial features of other dogs, consider that dogs are for a good part limited in what they can do with their faces. A dog's muzzle is mostly designed for strength rather than flexibility and as such is limited in its range of expressions, explains psychology professor Stanley Coren. While dogs cannot frown, lift an eyebrow or wink, they mostly rely on other body signals and vocalizations to express their emotions. Body language is a primary communication method for animals.

An Effective Motivator

Since Rover can read them, it's not a bad idea to take advantage of your facial expressions to make the most of your training sessions. Taking away that stone face that suggests training is a chore goes a long way. A happy face, accompanied by a big smile when you deliver a tasty treat, can help motivate your dog and instill a level of enthusiasm that makes a difference in the outcome of your training sessions.