Do Dogs Recognize Facial Expressions?

by Sundays

Dog looking at person's face outside in a city.

Several studies have been done on whether dogs can read facial expressions, and the results are in.

Have you ever thought your dog was grinning at you or giving you side-eye? And if they can copy these human expressions, does that mean dogs can recognize our facial expressions and understand what they mean?

We lean heavily on facial expressions for all sorts of valuable information about people. You can tell if someone’s listening, see if they agree with you or not, or find out if a person is mad, sad, happy, excited, or bored just by reading their face. 

That’s why you may feel completely lost on a Zoom call where everyone stays off-camera. Sure, you can get other signals like tone of voice, but we really do rely on facial expressions to give us instant feedback about what people are thinking.  

But do dogs do the same? 

What your dog thinks of your face

Several studies have been done on whether dogs can read facial expressions, and the results are in. They definitely try to read your face, but it certainly doesn’t come naturally to them as a species. 

In a 2020 study, researchers found that when it comes to human faces, it wouldn’t really matter if they were looking at your face or the back of your head. The dogs’ brain activity was the same in both cases. When it comes to looking at other dogs’ faces, that’s a different story. Their brains lit up way more when they looked at another dog’s face.

Don’t get us wrong; your dog probably loves your face and can recognize it in a crowd. It’s just that looking for clues in your face isn’t on the top of any dog’s list when it comes to understanding what you’re feeling or thinking. Looking at a face for insight is way more of a human thing. 

Now, just because it’s not their main focus doesn’t mean dogs can’t recognize facial expressions. In 2015, a study found that they could tell an angry face from a happy one when they were shown different combinations of human faces.

Which part of your face is your dog most likely to look at?

Another study showed that dogs are most interested in people’s ears, foreheads, noses, and mouths. And these are the same areas that they look at on dogs, too, so no matter your expression or species, they will look at the same areas of the face for clues.

We don’t usually look at another person’s ears if we want to read their facial expression, because our ears don’t move depending on your emotions. Dogs, on the other hand, can communicate a lot of things just with their ears–like fear, confidence, curiosity, or even a threat or challenge. That explains why they are hardwired to check our ears, too, even though ours don’t move.

Dogs also check out your mouth because they use their mouths a lot to communicate. A dog that’s baring their teeth is likely telling you to back off, but it can also be a sign of submission. We don’t bare our teeth at people when we’re angry, so it’s probably pretty hard for dogs to learn what our different mouth movements really mean. 

How do dogs read your mood?

So if dogs can read facial expressions, but they don’t get tons of information from them, how do they read our moods? You can probably vouch for the fact that your pup can tell when you are upset or excited. 

Dogs have tons of methods for detecting what kind of mood we’re in. Some are the same methods that we use, but they’ve got a few extra. Here are some of the ways they can tell how we’re feeling:

Tone of voice

They’ve learned to understand how our voices change when we’re loud and yelling versus calm and happy.

How we smell

Yes, they can smell certain emotions. Some researchers had the idea to collect people’s sweat after watching videos that made them happy or scared, and to have dogs sniff the sweat. They reacted to the “fear sweat” with their own fear signals, like high heart rates and wanted comfort from their owners.

Heart rate

Dogs don’t need a special instrument to track our heart rate. Knowing if your heart rate is high or low can help your pup tell if you are calm or scared or even excited.

Body language

Dogs are also super-tuned in to nonverbal cues in humans and other dogs. They can tell things about your mood from hand gestures, how much you’re moving or not moving, and even how much you’re cuddling them.

All in all, dogs are very intelligent creatures, and they’ve learned to read our moods not only through facial expressions, but also by using their other senses. So rest assured that your dog is pretty attuned to how you feel, no matter how they gather their clues.

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