Knew it. Your dog is making cute faces at you on purpose

Dog feels may be more complex than we thought

Dog feels may be more complex than we thought


Symbiosis. In zoology it's a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between two species. Humans and dogs have been sympatico for about 15 millenia. Safe to say the relationship qualifies - and it's an abiding love. But you don't enjoy a longterm relationship with someone without mastering the finer points of non-verbal shorthand.

A newly published study from the University of Portsmouth's Dog Cognition Centre, confirmed that socialized dogs, as opposed to wild dogs, aim complex facial gesticulations at their favorite humans. Even when there's no chance of getting their snouts on some snacks. This isn't just food flirting.

Dr. Juliane Kaminski, coauthor of the study says, "we can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited." They're responding overtly and intentionally to the human gaze. Especially, she says, when that gaze comes from the humans they know best.  

The research adds to earlier science that proves your dog loves you, specifically, with all its little heart (less crucially, they also love reggae). But one study showed that pet puppers placed in an MRI scanner and given a host of smells to inhale prioritized their human's odour signature above all others they could sniff. Their dog brain reward centres consistently lit up when they caught a whiff of their preferred persons.That same study confirmed that dogs are the only species that seek out solid eye contact with their humans.  

Likely, says Kaminski, they're not just looking to lock eyes but communicate actual feeling states.  She's adamant that her findings demonstrate that "dogs are sensitive to humans' attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays." The salient take away of expertly delivered puppy-dog eyes do, however, remain an adorable mystery.  

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Mounting evidence from studies like Kaminski's suggest that dogs, along with chimps and horses actually have numerous facial communication cues they give to their handlers. The prior consensus was that domestic mammals only landed on what we infer to be happy and sad faces by accident (although, note that angry face with a side of growl is not accidental). A better example is the derpy dog smirk characteristic of the post-run pup. That, we know, is just what a dog's face (and tongue) does when it's panting.       

Still, by using something called FACS (the Facial Action Coding System), Kaminski was able to show that your dog has at least sixteen distinct and deliberate expressions. Many of which, it seems, are reserved just for you. You have twenty-seven. So dogs are doing alright at emoting - or we're doing terrible. One of the two. Consider here that dogs are about as smart as two year-old.

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Kaminski's team looked at a small sample of various breeds and recorded their facial responses as owners faced them, offered them food or turned away. So her research is not yet vast. But it did confirm that more facial expressions were produced by her furry subjects when their human was looking right at them (again, even when food was absent). Couple that with findings that even tail wagging is more sophisticated than assumed (it doesn't mean happy or friendly) and you've a groundwork for more complex emotive communication in canines. The inverse is also true. Dogs, just like us, can read emotion to scan for intent and label a person malevolent or amicable.     

Although the study is small and more research is needed, Kaminski maintains that her findings move our understanding of canine cognitive behaviour forward. "We now know dogs make more facial expressions when the human is paying attention." The meaning of the various expressions aimed at us will need more scrutiny.

Make no mistake though, regardless of the emotional complexities that colour the inner workings of your dog's mind and expressions, he or she still also really wants a cookie. And maybe a tummy rub. I mean, to be fair, who doesn't?