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Your Dog Makes That Cute Face On Purpose

a cute dog

Many mammals, such as rabbits, make facial expressions. The architecture of the face, with muscles for making facial expressions is much the same across these mammals. They probably inherited this architecture from a common evolutionary ancestor in the distant past.

In the past, scientists have argued that animal facial expressions are different than humans. They are inflexible and involuntary and don't reflect sophisticated cognitive processes. Increasing evidence shows that thinking might be wrong.

Food Excitement

In 2017, a team of scientists from the United Kingdom published findings that dogs actively use facial expressions to communicate with and influence humans. The experimenters put dogs in situations where a human experimenter was either paying attention to them or turned away, and either gave them food or didn't.

Getting food is emotionally exciting for dogs. If their facial expressions just have to do with emotional excitement, then it shouldn't matter whether a human is paying attention to them or not. On the other hand, if dogs are actively using facial expressions to influence humans, then it should.

Human Attention

The researchers found that the dogs showed a much wider range of facial expressions when the human was paying attention, than when they were given food without human attention.

There's other evidence, too. Researchers found dogs use a special gesture involving raised eyebrows when interacting with humans. It makes their eyes look bigger, which humans find cute.

People are predisposed to find animals with bigger eyes cuter because of their resemblance to human infants. In fact, dogs that use this expression are more likely to be adopted from a shelter.

If you want to keep thinking about the emotional lives of dogs, we also had a recent post about how dogs display empathy in their interactions with other dogs.

Thank you to Amy Smith of the University of Sussex, UK for reviewing this episode's script.

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