Plain Jane Dogs Work Harder to Communicate

Mary Simpson
by Mary Simpson

Studies show dogs without facial markings tend to get the short end of the stick... so to speak.

Photo Credit: otsphoto /

My Miniature Schnauzer has bright white eyebrows that go for miles and ears that keep no secrets when gauging her interest in a particular topic. With words like water, walk, out, treat, a suddenly raised ear or brow cocked just right, becomes a dead giveaway to her level of interest.

Not so easy with the solid grey faces of my two Schnoodles, that will typically sit up or wander over if a particular word has caught their fancy.

Well, it seems recent studies conducted at The George Washington University in D.C. and a paper written on just how our dogs’ facial markings help make it easier for us to read their interest in a certain topic. Cue to raised eyebrows and furrowed forehead.

The published report shares “Living closely with humans, dogs have not only evolved the ability to distinguish familiar human faces and process human facial cues, but they have also developed a propensity for responding in kind. In particular, dogs make and maintain eye contact and use a variety of facial gestures to effectively communicate with human companions and may even have developed facial expressions in response to non-human stimuli, such as pain.”

What's more interesting is this research also uncovered that dogs without those expressive facial markers tend to work harder to get their message through. They actually appeared to make more facial movements or expressions when communicating with their owner than those with markings. It would be similar to speaking with someone who is hard of hearing, where you lean closer and speak more succinctly to help them understand. According to your dog, you would be the person who is hard of hearing.

Working with over 100 dogs and their owners from across North America and Europe, the university’s Primate Genomics Lab established a demographic baseline that showed they were studying a mix of working, toy, terriers, sporting, non-sporting, herding and mixed breeds.

Owners were to take a photo of their dog and record a 30-second video of their pooch in each of four situations:

1)     Dog at rest with no human eye contact

2)     Human making eye contact without speaking, gesturing or encouraging interaction

3)     Human making eye contact and speaking in a neutral tone using words/phrases unfamiliar to their dog.

4)     Human making eye contact and speaking in a slightly excited tone using words/phrases familiar to their dog.

Videos were then run through a coding system called DogFACS to analyze each dog's behavior and scaled to evaluate facial markings and patterns on dogs' faces.

In addition to recognizing that dogs without facial markings seemed to work harder, the team found that senior dogs appeared less expressive – likely due to a longer, more well-established interactive relationship with their human.

So, why bother with this type of research? Per Study Lead Courtney Sexton, "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,"

Mary Simpson
Mary Simpson

Sharing space with three seriously judgy Schnoodles and a feline who prefers to be left alone. #LivingMyBestLife

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