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Looks matter to dogs, too

07:01 AM October 23, 2017

DELIGHTFUL FINDING This is a delightful finding that provides more evidence of how dogs draw us closer to them with their eyes, says Brian Hare, a professor and director of the canine cognition center at Duke University. —AFP

NEW YORK — Here’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.

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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.

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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 that was published on Thursday in the Scientific Reports journal.

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 e-mail.

Eye contact

This should be good news for any dog lover who fears that Fido only cares because he’s being fed, according to 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 e-mail.

Humans have evolved to be much more sensitive to eye contact and facial expressions that exaggerate eye contact.

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“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,” Hare added.

Can’t know intentions

Kaminiski was quick to note that the researchers don’t and can’t know a dog’s 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 super cute when they want something is something we did in fact not find,” she added, “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.

Involuntary response

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.–New York Times News Service

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TAGS: dog behavior, dog psychology, dogs
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