Dogs Know Exactly When to Break Out the Puppy Eyes
Yes, your dog knows what he’s doing when he turns the pouty puppy eyes on you. Research shows that dogs understand human facial expressions more than any other mammals.

Despite the fact that people and dogs aren’t able to talk to one another, our relationship with our pooches has persisted for tens of thousands of years. People and dogs have adapted to communicate nonverbally, and dogs have gotten so good at it that they’ve started learning how to manipulate us.

Canines are empathetic and hyper-social creatures. Many people note that their dogs come to comfort them in times of distress; it’s why dogs are the only species consistently successful in learning to take care of disabled owners. They experience something called emotional contagion—meaning that, though they don’t understand the complexity of our emotions, they are still able to recognize when their owner is not acting normal and will respond in kind.

ALSO READ: Is Your Unsocial Dog Autistic?

The Domestication of Man’s Best Friend

Homeless dog puppy eyesOur bond with dogs is so strong that they are the only non-primate mammals who actively seek eye contact with people. Even wolf pups, when raised by people, still do not willingly make eye contact because it’s considered threatening.

This behavior has been bred into pups through a 30 thousand-year domestication process. Researchers have been trying to determine just how much dogs understand human non-verbal communication and have gotten stunning results. The study had people oriented in a room in one of four ways: facing toward and facing away from the test dogs, with and without food.

The experiment found that usually when the people faced the dog, with or without food, the dog changed its expression. The expression they put on was the classic puppy eyes expression: big dopey eyes, which are meant to remind people of babies, and eyebrows are drawn in and tilted to make them look sadder.

When the people were faced away from the dogs, they were less expressive. This indicates that dogs purposefully manipulate their faces when people are looking at them. Researcher Juliane Kaminski believes that this means dogs may be able to “tapping into preference humans have.”

Can Dogs Mirror Human Expressions?

Can Dogs Mirror Human ExpressionsOther research has found that dogs also know how to mirror human expressions like yawns and smiles. Yawning is often contagious amongst people because of our empathetic nature, and it appears that dogs mirror human yawns, too. They’re most likely to do it with people they are bonded with, such as their owners.

Dogs have also been found to reorient themselves when they don’t understand a human facial expression by tilting their head. Your puppy’s cute little head tilt probably means that his muzzle is blocking part of your face and he needs to change his angle of sight to see your mouth better.

In addition to being able to read our nonverbal body language, dogs have been found to learn better through hand signals instead of verbal commands. A study showed that hand signals produced 99 percent accurate responses from dogs, whereas verbal commands only had an 82 percent success rate.

All science aside, we still don’t know if dogs have the capacity to understand the manipulation they perform on us. Scientists believe canine intelligence is around equal to that of a human toddler, around two years old. Much like dogs, toddlers experience emotional contagion but have yet to fully develop empathy skills. So, it may be that your dog is manipulating you without being aware of it; after all, he just wants a treat. He doesn’t quite understand that he’s driving you emotionally wild as a result of it.

Either way, it’s important to remember that even if your dog doesn’t understand the difference between sadness and anger, he still knows when something is wrong, and all he wants to do is help.

READ NEXT: The Science Behind Oxytocin and Puppy Love

Rita has a Master's degree in Biomedical Sciences and has worked in many different research laboratories. As a long-time dog owner, she's been trying to apply her skills, expertise and experience in the scientific field to writing about dogs and providing science-based information for other dog owners.