Canine Communication and Recognition of Facial Expressions
Many dog owners consider their pets to be part of the family. Long-term bonds develop between family members as they live in close proximity, spend time together, and share emotional experiences. We communicate with family members. Close relationships are dependent upon good communication. Although oral communication is unique to each species, nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language are shared. This means that the canine members of our family can read or recognize our nonverbal communication.
The status of the human-canine relationship has changed over time. Many years ago, dogs were often valued primarily for the work they could do herding livestock and protecting the home. However, with improved veterinary care, the advent of processed dog food, and cultural changes over time, more and more dogs have moved from outdoors to indoors and were socialized inside the home. In the indoor home environment, dogs learned to decipher human nonverbal communication. They interpreted human moods, anticipated human needs, learned to read human emotions and nonverbal cues, and were rewarded with food, shelter, and lots of attention and love. This positive reinforcement stimulated increased canine efforts to understand their humans.
Dogs depend on us for the basics of life - food and shelter. Therefore, they monitor our every move. We are the center of their canine world. They know when we are happy, mad, or sad. They can tell when we are focused or available for play time. They know when we are rushed or relaxed. They know when we are in pain or not feeling well. They are wise creatures that realize our moods affect them.
Dogs don't have to understand every spoken word to understand the gist of the conversation, especially since only 10% of what humans communicate is actually verbal any way. Ninety percent of our communication is nonverbal - our posture, gestures, body carriage, hand movements, speed of movement, actions, and facial expressions. Dogs have learned to monitor these physical actions and nonverbal expressions very closely and these canine observations result in a form of communication.
Do you ever get the impression that your dog can "tell" whether you are annoyed or content? According to a recent study conducted at Messerili Research institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, dogs may be able to discriminate between happy and angry human faces.
Researchers trained a group of 11 dogs to distinguish between images of the same person making a happy or an angry face. During the training stage, each dog was shown only the upper or the lower half of the person's face. The investigators then tested the dogs' ability to discriminate between human facial expressions by showing them different images from the ones used in training. The dogs were shown either the other half of the face used in the training stage, the other halves of people's faces not used in training, a face that was the same half as the training face but from a different person, or the left half of the face used in the training stage. The researchers found the dogs were able to pick the angry or happy face by touching a picture of it with their noses more often than one would expect by random chance.
The study showed the dogs had figured out how to transfer what they learned about human faces during training to new faces in the testing stage. "We can rule out that the dogs simply discriminated between the pictures based on a simple salient cue, such as the visibility of the teeth," said study author Corsin Muller. "Instead, our results suggest that the successful dogs realized that a smiling mouth means the same thing as smiling eyes", Muller said.
There is additional scientific evidence to validate many dog owners' beliefs that dogs can recognize our facial expressions. The University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom performed a series of experiments demonstrating canine ability to recognize facial expressions. Dogs were shown 12 images: two of a person and a dog looking negative or angry, two looking neutral, and two looking positive or smiling. As the dogs viewed the images, the scientists measured their reactions and assessed whether the dogs responded to the facial expressions of people and dogs in the same manner. They concluded that dogs are more sensitive to changes in facial expressions of other dogs, but that dogs did show different responses to positive, negative, or neutral expressions of humans, too.
In another experiment, a dog was placed alone in a room. The dog's owner and a stranger walked in via separate doors, crossed in front of each other, then exited through different doors. Dogs focused longer on their owners than they did on the strangers. When left alone again, the dogs waited by the door where their owner exited. The experiment was repeated; however, this time the faces of both the owner and the stranger were covered. In this instance, the dogs were less likely to focus on their owner or wait by the door for them. This illustrates the importance of facial recognition to dogs. Dogs are so focused on our faces that they respond differently when they cannot see our faces.
Research suggests that dogs have social recognition skills on a level with a human child aged six months to two years of age. The ability to recognize human facial expressions and body language is a learned skill. Dogs learn about cause and effect at an early age. Dogs know that licking their owner's hand will generate a smile and reward (affection or treat) and nipping at a hand will result in a frown and a reprimand. Dogs develop social skills by observing adult dogs and humans. Dogs develop their abilities to read facial expressions and body language by observing and interpreting those cues. They pick up other skills by watching us, too.
Dogs learn to track with their eyes by mimicking humans. Another experiment examined tracking ability in dogs. In this experiment, dogs were shown a movie of a woman who stared straight at them, spoke, and then looked at the object next to her. Another clip showed the woman turning her head to look at the object without focusing on the dog or speaking. The dogs followed the woman's gaze more often when the woman in the film made eye contact and spoke first.
It can be fun to try an experiment at home with your own dog(s). First, eliminate distractions from the environment - other people moving about, other pets, etc. Next, sit facing your dog and give him or her a huge smile. Your dog will probably relax his or her ears and begin to wag her or his tail. now, make a frown and furrow your brow. Your dog will likely respond to this stern look by backing up a bit, stopping the tail wag, and looking guilty. Try other expressions or hand gestures and see the result. Your dog has developed the ability to recognize and respond to your facial expressions. You are communicating nonverbally!