Domestic dogs may use facial expressions in attempts to communicate according to an initial study in Scientific Reports.
Historically, animal facial expressions have been considered inflexible and involuntary displays, reflecting an emotional state rather than active attempts to communicate with others. In non-human primates, facial expressions have been shown to be mediated by the presence of an audience, suggesting primates may have some understanding of whether the expressions can be seen by others. However, there has been no evidence that facial expressions in species other than primates are produced with similar sensitivity to the attention of an audience.
Juliane Kaminski and colleagues investigated whether dog facial expressions are tailored based on attention from humans. In their experiments, 24 domestic dogs of different breeds were presented with four situations in which a human demonstrator was either facing them or turned away, with and without food. In each of the trials, the dog’s facial responses were recorded using a video camera and analysed. The authors found that the dogs produced significantly more facial movements when the demonstrator was facing them than when not, and that the presence of food had no effect.
The authors suggest that dogs produce facial expressions communicatively and increase their frequency based on the attention they receive from another individual. While facial expressions have been considered to be an automatic, reflexive and emotionally based system, the authors argue that their data points to a more flexible system combining both emotional and potentially cognitive processes in dogs.