Study: Dogs Lick Their Mouth in Response to Angry Human Faces

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Every dog owner knows how attuned canine can be to our emotions. When we’re sad, they’ll come and cuddle, make guilty faces when they sense we’re irritated, and come to play when we’re a good mood. But, how do they do it? Is it a matter of instinct, something they learn along the way, or are they some kinds of four-legged wizards?

The answer is simple: they are reading our body language.

As dogs primarily use their noses to explore, it’s often believed that they rely on their sense of smell for getting a better understanding of the world around them. However, when it comes to getting a sense of their owners, it seems canines respond to visual cues more.

Animal behavior researchers in the United Kingdom and Brazil examined the reaction of dogs who were exposed simultaneously to visual expressions and audio cues of both other canines and humans. They focused on the mouth-licking behavior and found that it occurs most commonly when dogs were shown a picture of an angry human face.

Lead author of the paper, Natalia Albuquerque from the University of Sao Paulo, said:

“Mouth-licking was triggered by visual cues only (facial expressions). There was also a species effect, with dogs mouth-licking more often when looking at humans than at other dogs. Most importantly, the findings indicate that this behavior is linked to the animals’ perception of negative emotions.”

The study, published in the scientific journal Behavioural Processes, suggests that dogs have a functional understanding of emotional information, and that exploring this matter further may help us finally figure out what our four-legged best friends are trying to tell us.