By Karen Weintraub
New York Times News Service
H ere’s looking at you, pup.
The wide-eyed, pleading look of your dog may melt your heart and cause food to vanish from the table, but that doesn’t really mean your pet has become the master of manipulation.
Sometimes a dog’s expression merely reflects yours.
In a new study, researchers in Britain monitored dogs’ facial expressions — particularly the muscle that raises the inner part of the eyebrows and makes their eyes look bigger — while a person was either paying attention to them or turned away, sometimes holding food and sometimes not.
The dogs were much more expressive when the person was paying attention, but food didn’t seem to make a difference, according to the study, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. The dogs also stuck out their tongues and barked more when they got attention, compared with when they were being ignored or given food.
“This simply shows that dogs produce more (but not different) facial movements when someone is looking at them,” Juliane Kaminski, the study’s lead researcher and a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth in England, said via email.
This should be good news for any dog lover who fears that Fido only cares because he’s being fed, said Brian Hare, a professor and director of the canine cognition center at Duke University who was not involved in the study.
“This is a delightful finding that provides more evidence of how dogs draw us closer to them with their eyes,” Hare said in an email. Humans have evolved to be much more sensitive to eye contact and facial expressions that exaggerate eye contact. “This research shows that the facial expressions that we find attractive in dogs are made when we can see them — not when we are wandering around the kitchen looking for a treat for them.”
Kaminiski was quick to note that the researchers don’t and can’t know the dogs’ intentions.
“We cannot in any way speculate what dogs might ‘mean’ with whatever facial movement they produce,” she wrote, adding that it’s also unknowable whether the dogs “make eyes” in order to manipulate people.
“This kind of ‘dinner table effect’ that dogs try and look supercute when they want something is something we did in fact not find,” she wrote, “meaning, there was no effect of food being visible or not.”
Nor did food alone elicit other puppy-dog looks. “Dogs do not seem to produce facial movement as a kind of reflex to being aroused,” Kaminski wrote.
Hare said the study should also serve as a reminder that humans respond involuntarily to the actions of their pets.
“When we’re interacting with our dogs, we’re not totally in control of how we view them and the opinion we have of them,” he said. Physical features, like the length of their noses and making eye contact, influence how we feel about dogs, he said. “It really mirrors how our interactions occur with our own species.”
That kind of information can be useful, for instance, for screening would-be service dogs and in making decisions about adopting a puppy, he added.