How Dogs Perceive the World: Reading Facial Expressions


Can dogs' read our facial expressions?

I read a fascinating article today about the way dogs perceive the world. It doesn’t answer all of our questions about our dogs’ point of view but it does provide some interesting insights.


BBC News reports on a study done by researchers at the University of Padua, in Italy, in which the scientists were able to show that dogs prefer to watch their owners rather than strangers. That may not be surprising but it seems that this is the first study designed to prove this fact.

For a look at the full news article, see the following link:

According to Paolo Mongillo, who led the study, a dog was placed in an empty room. The dog’s owner and someone unfamiliar to the dog were told to walk across the room several times. Then each person would exit by a different door. The researchers were able to measure how much time the dogs spent looking at their owners compared to how long they looked at the strangers. They also noted that most of the dogs chose to go wait by the door that their owner exited through.

These results were not surprising but they may back up theories about the dog’s loyalty to his owner for survival purposes.

“If you imagine a dog in a real setting in a city or anywhere in the middle of a crowd or a crowded space, you can see how the animal must have adapted to give preferential attention to its owner,” said Dr. Mongillo.

What is surprising is that, in a second part to the study, when both the owner and the stranger were asked to wear masks to hide their faces, dogs were not nearly as attentive to their owners. According to the researchers, this suggests that domestic dogs have evolved to place a great emphasis on human faces and expressions, unlike wild canines such as wolves, who rely more on body signals and cues from other animals and things around them.

When dogs can’t see a person’s face they have problems recognizing the person clearly as well as reading facial expressions. They are less likely to fall back on their ancient inherited behaviors to help them figure things out. This suggests that their behavior has been modified by living with humans for the last 15,000-40,000 years.

Most of us aren’t going to wear a mask to test how our dog reacts to us but this study may provide some insight into why our dogs do watch our faces for cues. Dogs do seem to look to our eyes and faces when we speak to them. They seem to be attuned to the nuances of social interaction with humans. Any clicker trainer will tell you that one of the first things you try to teach your dog is to “Watch me!” Dogs do seem to be able to read our faces in a similar way that we read their faces or we read the faces of other people. Maybe this is a skill they’ve learned from living with us for thousands of years.

It’s wonderful to know that when our loving dogs look at our faces they really know who we are and they’re capable of understanding our expressions.

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