What’s Written on Your Dog’s Face?

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic
Julia Zavalishina/Shutterstock

A new study revealed that the complexity of a canine’s facial markings affects how humans interpret a dog’s expressions. Researchers explained that people could do a lot to better understand their four-legged companions and dogs’ facial markings may be the key.

Researchers from the GW Primate Genomics Lab published a paper in the journal Animals, detailing their discovery. The study found that dogs with plain faces - dogs without any facial markings or dogs whose faces are one, solid color - seem to make more facial expressions when interacting with people than dogs with more complex markings - dogs with patterned or multi-colored faces. 

But that’s not all! Researchers also found that people can accurately assess their dogs’ levels of expressivity, overall. What’s interesting is that people whose dogs are relatively young, between two to seven years old, are better at gauging their dog’s expressivity if the dog has a plain face. 

Over 100 dogs and their owners took part in the study. The research team instructed the owners participating in the study to record their dogs in four different conditions. Researchers then used DogFACS, an observational tool for identifying and coding facial movements in dogs, to analyze each dog’s behavior. The team also came up with a new system to evaluate patterns and facial markings on dogs’ faces.

According to researchers, these findings are important not only for pet owners but also for people working alongside, interacting with, or living in neighborhoods with dogs. 

“As dogs become more and more integrated into human society, it’s important that we understand how they communicate with us and how we can better communicate with them,” said Courtney Sexton, the study’s lead author. 

“If we think about this in terms of welfare context, or dogs in shelters, or working dogs and service animals, or interactions with dogs in your neighborhood or people at a dog park, knowing what dogs are trying to tell us and what they might be thinking or feeling can really enhance both their experience and ours when we’re together,” she explained.

This study also discovered interesting details about senior dogs and their communication with humans. It appears that senior pooches are less expressive in their communication with their owners than their younger counterparts. Sexton believes this may be because senior dogs don’t have to work as hard to be understood because they have a longer, well-established connection with their owners. 

Interestingly, the research team discovered that highly trained dogs or working dogs were more expressive in their communication with humans. This shows that these sorts of human-canine partnerships require fluent communication, making people more adept at understanding their dogs’ expressions. 

This study emphasizes the strength of the bond between dogs and humans. Paying more attention to your dog’s facial expressions, especially if your dog has a solid-colored face, can help you understand your pooch better and deepen your connection. Strengthening your special bond even further. 

If you’d like to see and learn more about the participating dogs in this research, check out their recordings on Instagram, @ how_dogs_talk.

Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

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