Dogs Are More Expressive When We're Looking At Them

A new study shows dogs display more facial expressions when we pay attention
By Marc Bekoff, October 2017, Updated January 2021

We're constantly learning more and more about dog behavior and dog-human relationships. While we know quite a bit about these topics, there’s also a lot to learn and it’s good that researchers are paying attention to what we don’t know.

In a new study by Julianne Kaminsky and her colleagues called “Human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs,” we learn that the facial expressions of dogs aren’t as inflexible and as involuntary as some have previously assumed, and that change their facial expressions when humans are looking at them. Two very good summaries can be found in essays by Nicola Davis titled “Dogs have pet facial expressions to use on humans, study finds” and Karen Weintraub called “Dogs Pay Attention to Your Looks.”

The research paper is available online so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more on this very interesting study. The team of researchers was motivated to perform their study because there has been “no systematic experimental evidence ... that facial expressions in species other than primates, are produced with similar sensitivity to the attention of the audience.”

When nonhuman and human animals change their behavior when they’re the focus of attention the response is called the “audience effect” and Dr. Kaminski and her colleagues wanted to see if dogs responded as did some nonhuman primates. They studied 24 family dogs (13 males and 11 females of different breeds and ages). The dogs were filmed in a room while a human stood 1 meter from them either looking at them or looking away. They filmed the dogs in four different situations: attentive food, attentive no food, not attentive food, and not attentive no food. They also reported that the reliability in assessing facial expressions was high among different researchers. 


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The results of this study can be summarized as follows. In the words of the researchers: 

First, human attentional state 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. This effect was strongest for AUs, AU101 (“inner brow raiser”) and AD19 (“tongue show”). Human attentional state also affected one of the dogs other behaviors, the frequency of vocalizations produced. The visibility of the food, however, did not affect dogs’ facial movements and there is also no conclusive evidence that it affected any of the dogs other behaviors. So, while dogs produce more facial expressions when the human is oriented towards them and in a position to communicate, the visibility of non-social but arousing stimulus (the food) did not alter their facial movements in the same way.

Dogs aren’t using just us for food

So, all in all, the dogs produced more but not different facial expressions when the human was paying attention to them and food didn’t have any effect. So, dogs aren’t necessarily using people to get food. Dr. Kaminski notes that for many people who know dog behavior, the results aren’t all that surprising. She also cautions that we really don’t know the dogs’ intentions when they display different facial expressions when they’re being looked at. 

I was very pleased to learn of this study and I look forward to more detailed research on how dogs and humans interact. I agree with Duke University dog researcher Dr. Brian Hare who summarizes this study by noting, “This is a delightful finding that provides more evidence of how dogs draw us closer to them with their eyes.”

Please stay tuned for more research on the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals. It’s surely an exciting time to do this sort of research and to learn more about what they’re thinking and feeling, what’s going on in their heads and in their hearts.

Note: This was originally published in Psychology Today and used with permission.


Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder.