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.
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.
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.
Thank you to Amy Smith of the University of Sussex, UK for reviewing this episode's script.
Sources And Further Reading:
- Davis, Nicola. "Dogs have pet facial expressions to use on humans, study finds." The Guardian. October 19, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018.
- J. Kaminski et. al. 2017, Human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs, Scientific Reports, 7: 12914 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-12781-x
- Luntz, Stephen. "Study Proves That Your Dog Really Is Deliberately Manipulating You." IFLScience.com. October 19, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018.
- Potenza, Alessandra. "Dogs make more faces when you're paying attention." The Verge. October 19, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018.
- Starr, Michelle. "Dogs Really Do Pull Faces to Communicate With Us, Says New Study." ScienceAlert. October 20, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018.