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2017-10-25 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

“Here’s looking at you, Kid!” Humphrey Bogart would be so intrigued with new canine research from the University of Portsmouth in Britain.This study found dogs produce more facial expressions when humans are looking at them.

Scientists at the University’s Dog Cognition Centre are the first to find clear evidence dogs move their faces in direct response to human attention. Dogs don’t respond with more facial expressions upon seeing tasty food, suggesting that dogs produce facial expressions to communicate and not just because they are excited.

Brow-raising, which makes the eyes look bigger - so-called “puppy dog eyes” - was the dogs’ most commonly used expression in this research.

Dog cognition expert Dr Juliane Kaminski led this recent study about dog expressions. Dr. Kaminski is a lecturer from the psychology department at the University of Portsmouth She received her Ph.D. in biological sciences from Leipzig University and helped found and lead the Max Planck Institute’s Dog Cognition Study Center.There, she made a number of exciting discoveries about how dogs solve problems. Her research interests include social cognition, communication and cooperation in human infants and dogs.

Lab with “puppy dog eyes” Lab with “puppy dog eyes” She was the first to show that a dog named Rico learns words in a similar fashion as human infants. She is widely recognized as a leading expert on dog cognition and has been recognized in National Geographic, Discovery News and the NOVA special documentary film “Dogs Decoded” broadcast on American public television.The canine expression study was just published in Scientific Reports online Oct. 19, 2017. Here is an excerpt:

“Dr. Kaminski said: “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. In our study they produced far more expressions when someone was watching, but seeing food treats did not have the same effect. The findings appear to support evidence dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays.”

Most mammals produce facial expressions - such expressions are considered an important part of an animal’s behavioral repertoire - but it has long been assumed that animal facial expressions, including some human facial expressions, are involuntary and dependent on an individual’s emotional state rather than being flexible responses to the audience.

Dr. Kaminski said it is possible dogs’ facial expressions have changed as part of the process of becoming domesticated.The researchers studied 24 dogs of various breeds, aged one to 12. All were family pets, and dogs comfortable away from their owner and near strangers. Each dog was tied by a lead a meter away from a person, and the dogs’ faces were filmed throughout a range of exchanges, from the person being turned towards the dog, to being distracted and with her body oriented away from the dog.

The dogs’ facial expressions were measured using DogFACS, an anatomically based coding system which gives a reliable and standardized measurement of facial changes linked to underlying muscle movement.

Co-author and facial expression expert Professor Bridget Waller said “DogFACS captures movements from all the different muscles in the canine face, many of which are capable of producing very subtle and brief facial movements. FACS systems were originally developed for humans, but have since been modified for use with other animals such as primates and dogs.”

In a 2013 study Waller found the more shelter dogs raised their eyebrows to produce the “puppy dog eyes look”, the faster they were re-homed. She offered two possible reasons. One was that this expression made the dogs look sadder, so humans felt sorry for them and adopted them. The other thought is their eyes look bigger which makes them resemble human babies, reinforcing peoples desire for child-like characteristics in pets.

Dr. Kaminski said: “Domestic dogs have a unique history - they have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs’ ability to communicate with us.

“We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is - in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when the human’s eyes were closed or they had their back turned. In another study, we found dogs follow the gaze of a human if the human first establishes eye contact with the dog, so the dog knows the gaze-shift is directed at them.

“This study moves forward what we understand about dog cognition. We now know dogs make more facial expressions when the human is paying attention.”

It is impossible yet to say whether dogs’ behavior in this and other studies is evidence dogs have flexible understanding of another individual’s perspective - that they truly understand another individual’s mental state - or if their behavior is hard-wired, or even a learned response to seeing the face or eyes of another individual.

“Puppy dog eyes” is a facial expression which, in humans, closely resembles sadness. This potentially makes humans more empathetic towards the dog using the expression, or because it makes the dog’s eyes appear bigger and more infant-like - potentially tapping into humans’ preference for child-like characteristics. Regardless of the mechanism, humans are particularly responsive to that expression in dogs.

Previous research has shown some apes can also modify their facial expressions depending on their audience, but until now, dogs’ abilities to do use facial expression to communicate with humans hadn’t been systematically examined until now.”

The current study is evidence dogs are sensitive to the human’s attention when producing facial expressions, suggesting facial expressions are not just inflexible and involuntary displays of emotion but instead potentially active attempts to communicate with others. In short, our dogs are talking to us with their eyes when we are looking at them.

For Adoption at Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: At an adoption open house last Saturday, Shelter Link dressed some available Pits for Halloween. “Nathan” 16-51, found in the basement of a boarded-up house in 2016, looked smashing in his holiday boa, while Sox 17-457, rescued off the parkway, was a star in her diamond-studded mask. Both dogs need homes.

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