Dogs Communicate to Us Using Facial Expressions
Recent studies show that dogs love when we smile, and give us those sad “puppy eyes” on purpose.

Dogs and humans have lived alongside one another for around 30,000 years, give or take.

During the time, we’ve adopted certain behaviors, habits, and characteristics from each other. Dogs can’t communicate with us just yet, but they’ve spent a long time observing how we do communicate. And now they may be trying to talk back.

Watch and Learn

Studies show that dogs spend a lot of their time watching humans and studying how we act and look. Domestic dogs have been shown to look up at human faces more often than hand-raised wolf puppies.

Dogs Communicate With Us by Watching and Using Facial Expressions
Image: University of Portsmouth

Over the years, dogs have gotten better at reading out communication signals than other animals. And now they’re learning to play off of those gestures, as well as relate back to us with their own.

RELATED: Dog Facial Expressions and Body Language Explained by Science

When dogs know humans are looking at them, they put on a different facial expression. This might not be a reaction to us – rather, it may be an attempt at communication with us!

Sad Puppy Eyes

A study was done in England recently which demonstrated that dogs intentionally made that classic “sad puppy face” where they raise their inner eyebrows. This expression makes their eyes bigger and makes them appear more infant-like.

Juliane Kaminski is a psychologist at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth, working in the Dog Cognition Center.

Kaminski and her team of researchers conducted a study where they recruited 24 family dogs and watched them react to different situations.

Dogs Communicate With Us by Watching and Using Facial Expressions
Kaminski and her dog subject.
Photo: University of Portsmouth

Each dog was put near a human they didn’t know, and the human did one of 4 different things:

  1. Faced the dog while holding a treat
  2. Turned away from the dog while holding a treat
  3. Faced the dog empty-handed
  4. Turned away from the dog empty-handed

The dogs reactions were continuously filmed. To assist and avoid confusion, researchers used a rubric of defined canine facial expressions (based on which muscles the dogs flexed).

Of particular interest to Kaminski and her team was this sad puppy face. Prior studied indicate that people fall for this expression and can’t resist it when they see it.

Well, dogs have come to understand this!

In fact, dogs who use this expression in shelter environments tend to get adopted more readily than those who do not.

RELATED: Empathetic People Can Better Interpret Dogs’ Expressions

This study showed that dogs put this expression on their face when the human faced them.

The researchers surmise that this may mean the dogs are knowingly catering to human preferences by putting on the expression they know humans love.

But This Doesn’t Mean Manipulation

While it is tempting to jump to the conclusion that dogs are intentionally playing on our preferences and emotions, Kaminski cautions against this.

She says that just because they make this face when a human turns attention toward them, it doesn’t mean they are manipulating us.

Manipulation would involve getting us to do something for them by making the sad puppy face. However, the dogs were not any more interested in the people holding treats than those not holding treats.

It also could not be determined whether the dogs understood that they looked sadder with this expression, or only understood that it simply earned them more attention from the humans.

In future studies, Kaminski hopes to shed some light on the motivation behind these expressions, as well as how domestication dogs may have influenced their behaviors.

The evidence supports the theory that dogs are sensitive to the attention of humans, and that these facial expressions may be attempts to communicate with us.

If you are located in the U.K. and would like your dog to participate in these sorts of fun studies, you can sign up here!

READ NEXT: 10 Ways Dogs Communicate Their Sense of Humor

SOURCENational Geographic
Cody has worked and volunteered with rescue animals her entire life. She worked as a veterinary assistant and technician in shelters, rescues, boarding facilities, doggy daycares and animal hospitals in New York and Chicago throughout her teens and twenties, and now resides as a pet foster mom in Upstate New York.