When you think of your dog, what happens? If you are like most dog owners, your facial expression softens, your eyes shine, your lips curve into a smile and your stress melts away.
But did you know spending time with you has changed your dog? Studying the evolutionary impact humans and canines have had on each other is now a bona fide science.
One of the most exciting aspects of this ongoing research is the science of dog facial expressions and particularly the science of puppy dog eyes. This research focuses on why dogs make certain facial expressions, what those expressions mean, and how dogs use facial expression to communicate with “their” people – that is, you!
Evolving dog facial anatomy
A recent National Academy of Sciences study details how canine facial anatomy has changed over the last 33,000 years. This in-depth research took a look at the difference between facial structure and musculature in wolves versus domestic dogs.
One fascinating finding confirmed a link between facial anatomy changes and behavioral changes in domestic dogs.
Today’s dogs, for example, all have a muscle in their eyebrows that allows them to raise their inner eyebrows to make an expression researchers have dubbed “puppy dog eyes.”
When your dog raises his or her inner eyebrow muscles, this produces the telltale mournful, soulful look you know all too well. The one that makes you willing to give your pup anything she wants, even if it is off-limits!
Intriguingly, this same inner eyebrow muscle is not present in most modern wolves.
What’s most interesting is the fact this expression is quite similar to what a human’s face looks like when we are sad!
Researchers hypothesize that dogs watched people displaying this face and observed the sad person receive nurturing support from other people. Dogs began to mimic this expression to get similar attention, and ultimately, their facial anatomy changed.
Dogs who were more adept at producing the expression were more likely to find favor with people. That preferential treatment kept them healthier and allowed them to breed and pass along their genes.
If you thought your dog was amazing before now, this research takes it to a whole new level!
Yes, your dog meant to make eye contact with you
Think back to the last time your dog made eye contact with you. Did you get the vibe that your dog meant to do this and perhaps was even trying to convey a message?
If you are nodding your head “yes” right now, you have excellent instincts about canine non-verbal communication.
In the same study about canine facial anatomy, researchers took a much closer look at canine eye contact. They looked at why a dog makes eye contact, the possible motivation, and the results of the behavior. They discovered dogs deliberately do something few other companion animals have evolved to do — they look to people for help.
You can see this quite easily if you keep company with both a dog and a cat.
Let’s say you throw your dog’s favorite toy, and it lands behind the sofa. Your dog can’t get to it even though he really, really, wants to. What does your dog do next? He looks at you for help. What do you do? You help him by retrieving the toy, of course!
Now let’s change the scene.
You throw your cat’s favorite toy, and it lands behind the sofa. Your cat can’t get to it even though she wants to. What does your cat do next? The most likely scenario (as reported by cat owners) is that your cat gives up and walks away without ever once looking to you for help.
Cats aren’t the only ones who don’t ask for help. Neither do wolves or chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest genetic relatives. So why does your dog look to you for help?
That request for help is another example of the unique bond between humans and dogs. That connection is so strong that when you make eye contact with your dog, you both get a hit of oxytocin, a powerful hormone usually associated with mothers and their infants. Oxytocin strengthens and reinforces your bond with every shared glance.
The most crucial takeaway may be this: Your dog doesn’t make certain facial expressions unless you are there to see them. In other words, your dog knows what he is doing. And he has an ulterior motive, too. When he makes certain facial expressions, he knows what he wants, whether it’s a pat, a treat, a walk, or all of the above.
Learn to understand dog facial expressions
So let’s take a closer look at 10 of the most common human-inspired expressions your dog has learned to make. We’ll help you understand what your dog’s facial expressions mean in the world of canine communication and help you learn to decode them.
1. Your dog stares at you
There’s a common misperception that dogs dislike eye contact. While most dogs don’t like making eye contact with strangers, especially if they see that stranger as a threat, they are happy to make eye contact with their people.
That eye contact comes in two forms: soft and hard.
Soft eye contact, where the eyes stay bright and relaxed, is a form of staying connected.
Hard eye contact, where the eyes seem to “pierce” through you, may be a precursor to aggression. It also can be a way for your dog to try to motivate you right now. For example, some dogs will start by giving you a hard stare if they want to go outside or if they need water in their bowls. If you don’t pick up on the signal, they will resort to other measures like standing by the door or scratching at it to let you know they need some time outside.
2. Your dog yawns
If you see your dog yawn, the first question to ask yourself is, “Did I just yawn?”
Dogs will yawn contagiously after seeing a person yawn – one of just a handful of species that will display this socially connected behavior.
If you didn’t just yawn, but your dog did, your pup may be tired or stressed out.
3. Your dog smiles at you
If you looked up “smile” in a people dictionary, you might see a definition linking it to happy feelings. If you looked up “smile” in a dog dictionary, chances are good; you would see the word “excitement.”
A smiling dog is an attentive, excited, eager dog.
4. Your dog raises her eyebrows
This is perhaps the dog’s “signature” look – puppy dog eyes. When your dog raises her eyebrows, this makes her eyes look bigger, and it makes her look, all together now, cuter.
If your dog wants something from you, the raised eyebrow is a tried-and-true way to get it.
5. Your dog breaks eye contact with you
Breaking eye contact is just as significant as making eye contact.
When it happens between you and your dog, researchers say it most likely signifies comfort and trust – in other words, it is no big deal.
6. Your dog avoids making eye contact with you
A dog that seems to be deliberately avoiding eye contact with you may be fearful, anxious, or stressed out since this behavior signals a desire to avoid the interaction. Be especially aware of “whale eye,” which happens when your dog opens her eye wide because she’s nervous or afraid. If she does that, she may be ready to bolt.
7. Your dog blinks or squints while looking at you.
There are a wide variety of reasons why your dog may blink or squint while gazing at you.
It’s also important to realize your dog may be acting that way due to an eye injury or infection, debris in the eye, dry eye, or other conditions. If your dog often blinks or squints, consult with your veterinarian, and consider scheduling an eye exam.
Blinking or squinting could mean the sun is in your dog’s eyes. It also could mean your dog is confused, perhaps by your behavior or command you gave.
8. Your dog tilts his head
If there is any canine expression that comes close to the effectiveness of puppy dog eyes, it is the equally adorable canine head tilt.
Why do dogs tilt their heads? Your dog is trying to show you he’s curious or perhaps excited and eager.
Dogs also have learned humans are nearly powerless when they see that adorable tilt and know doing so can help them get what they want.
9. Your dog lowers her head
When your dog maintains eye contact with you while lowering her head, the most logical explanation researchers give is healthy, willing submissiveness.
This doesn’t mean your dog is afraid or doing something under duress. It’s just her way of showing you she’s willing to follow your lead.
10. Your dog shows his teeth
Finally, it is vital to learn why your dog shows his teeth.
A show of teeth during a canine smile is no big deal. A show of teeth with flattened ears and a lip curl is a big deal. That expression could mean your dog is nervous or fearful.
To communicate, observe the whole dog
This final tip will serve you well while learning how to speak “canine” and translating your dog’s attempts to communicate with you.
Dogs can read human facial expressions and they have developed the ability to imitate them, too. But they are still dogs and they use other means to communicate. That’s why you need to learn to read your dog’s body language.
Dog behavioral experts continually reinforce the importance of observing the “whole dog” before deciding what your pup’s facial expressions mean. Posture, tail position, paw placement, body movement — all are clues to help you and your dog communicate clearly and confidently.