I went to a wedding this weekend and met a family friend’s dog. When she was happy, as well as wagging her tail, she pulled a face which showed her teeth. This was definitely not an aggressive face, it was far too derpy for that; they claimed that she was smiling.
She made this face when she was happy, but was it an innate action, not under her control, or was it only to tell us that she was enjoying being fussed? Facial expressions in non-human animals are hard to understand without anthropomorphising, but researchers have been working on how to better know what our pets are telling us.
They found that dogs make “puppy eyes” in order to communicate with their humans. It doesn’t matter whether or not the people are holding food, all that matters is that we are watching them and they will raise their eyebrows to make their eyes look bigger and sadder.
Wolves and dogs make some facial expressions such as snarling, which is used as a precursor to biting, whether they are in the company of humans or not. But it is currently unknown if this raised eyebrow look is used among each other or if this is just for us. If it is only used for our benefit, then it means that they have adapted to effectively communicate with us, something which may have occurred sometime after domestication around 14,000 years ago.
Humans are biologically destined to find things with big eyes cute, it makes them look younger and more vulnerable and means we want to look after them and smush their little faces. Dogs tap into this weakness for big eyes when they raise their eyebrows, making their eyes seem more expressive.
It is well established that dogs are more excitable when food is near, but the fact that they respond the same way to us with or without food, led researchers to suspect that these faces were not a purely innate, emotional response.
Dogs only do this as a way of connecting. They don’t actually feel sad, which is what a lot of owners think (much like how people think their dogs or cats look guilty when they’ve pooped in the shoe of an unsuspecting owner). It might instead just be a way to appease their owners and communicate that they have done this action as opposed to the emotional reaction guilt. In the same way, puppy dog eyes don’t reflect actual sadness, they have just learnt to make this signal as it creates a desirable reaction in the closest available human.
This is a good way of communicating between the species and was previously thought to only occur in apes. Apes and other primates are well known for making faces to communicate with each other, but they have also been found to use a selection of these to convey information to humans.
Dogs are one of the only animals to respond to a human’s gaze and will follow a person’s gaze, implying they can understand what people are trying to communicate. Horses can also do this to an extent, which suggests that it is a by product of domestication and a willingness to understand.
So there you go. Your dog is probably trying to communicate with you, just don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re sad and give them your last chicken nugget.