Though it may not speak English, your dog could be communicating with you more than you think. A new study from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. found that dogs make facial expressions at humans in an attempt to connect with them, regardless of whether the human has food to offer.
Here’s how the study worked: Researchers had 24 domestic dogs come to the lab. They were put into a room one at a time, tethered to the same spot (after familiarizing themselves with both the room and the researcher). Then the researcher came into the room and stood in one of four positions: looking toward the dog with food in her hands, looking toward the dog with nothing in her hands, looking away from the dog with food in her hands or looking away from the dog with nothing in her hands.
The researchers had a camera trained on the dog’s face during each trial and watched its expressions and movements.
The dogs in the study made significantly more facial expressions when the researcher was facing them, regardless of whether she was holding food. In fact, the food didn’t affect the dogs’ facial expressions or behavior at all.
The dogs produced two main facial expressions. The first was the “inner eyebrow raiser,” also known as puppy dog eyes. In the image below — from a separate study on dogs’ facial expressions — you can see a dog with a neutral facial expression (A) and doing the “inner eyebrow raiser” (B).
The inner eyebrow raiser is clearly a hit with humans, likely because it makes dogs’ eyes look bigger and the dog look younger.
“We also know that the puppy-dog-eyes ‘guilty look’ dogs affect when scolded has little to do with the dog’s emotion; rather, it’s a learned behavior, acting submissive in response to anger,” Science Alert noted in an article about the Portsmouth study.
According to a 2013 study, dogs who make such facial expressions more often are more likely to be adopted from shelters. Perhaps dogs have learned this is an expression humans like? It’s hard to know. What we do know is they generally tend to make it to our faces, not our backs.
The other expression dogs made to the researcher’s face was “tongue show,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The researchers aren’t sure what the dog revealing its tongue is meant to communicate to humans — it could be anything from the dog panting to reduce heat to showing signs of stress to articulating a relaxed state.
Maybe dogs will learn English someday, but until then, we’ll have to keep relying on their body language and facial expressions to figure out what they’re saying to us.