You know how sometimes your dog stares at you, and it seems like it’s reading your emotions? Well, new research says that it actually is reading them. And dogs read expressions the way humans do, starting with the eyes.
Dogs, says the study from the University of Helsinki, not only engage in "social gazing behavior" that mimics that of humans, but they also change their viewing behavior depending on the threat they perceive.
The study tracked the "voluntary eye gaze of domestic dogs during viewing of emotional expressions of dogs and humans." Photos of faces were used in the experiments, and three kinds of expressions were included—"threatening," "pleasant," and "neutral."
Like us, dogs start with the eyes and spend longer on them than on other features. This was the case whether looking at pictures of human faces or dog faces, suggesting that "eyes play a significant role in the face perception of dogs."
The study gets more interesting when you take the expressions into account. The dogs reacted differently to the various expressions, but their behavior also changed depending on whether they were viewing another dog or a human. When confronted with a picture of a threatening dog, the dog studied the mouth longer. When exposed to a threatening human, though, the dogs averted their gaze. "During exposure to human faces dogs tended to look at angry eyes less than neutral eyes," says the study, "which could be due to the eye contact aversion, as in humans."
It seems that, like humans, dogs tailor their attention based on salient points. Humans, for instance, spend a lot of time looking at the mouth on a happy face, likely because the smile contains the most relevant information in that instance. And dogs, as mentioned above, fixate on the mouth of another, threatening, dog, for similar reasons.
"The tolerant behavior strategy of dogs toward humans may partially explain the results," says University of Helsinki researcher Sanni Somppi "Domestication may have equipped dogs with a sensitivity to detect the threat signals of humans and respond them with pronounced appeasement signals."
So, the next time you communicate with your obedient companion, you can just stare into each other’s eyes and exchange emotions. Kidding aside, knowing that your pet is reading your expressions, and that it is also trying to communicate using its own expressions, could lead to much richer communication and understanding between the two of you.