Science: Yes, your dog gives you puppy dog eyes — even without treats

October 26, 2017

“Puppy dog eyes” are a very real phenomenon, science shows.

A paper recently published by a team of scientists from Britain explains how domestic dogs change their facial expressions, becoming more expressive when humans are paying attention to them.

“Oh, sure,” you might say. “Because they think they’re getting a treat.”

Not so, the scientists found. The team conducted a scenario where a human tester either faced away from, faced towards, or offered food to dogs. In the tests, even when the human tester was holding food, the dogs reacted the same as when no food was present, as long as the human didn’t have her back to them.

During the tests, researchers found that the muscle used by dogs to widen their eyes and raise their eyebrows was more active when humans were interacting with the dogs. The pups were also more likely to let their tongues hang out and bark than when they were being ignored.

We humans use facial expressions not just to show how we’re feeling, but to communicate with others. We don’t think of animals as being as expressive in the same communicative ways as us. Most mammals have facial expressions, but aren’t necessarily in control of them. This study suggests that maybe some dog expressions are voluntary.

The study puts it like this: “Dogs are sensitive to the human’s attentional state when producing facial expressions, suggesting that facial expressions are not just inflexible and involuntary displays of emotional states, but rather potentially active attempts to communicate with others.”

So what might dogs be trying to communicate to us, if they’re trying to at all? The researchers don’t know for sure, but hopefully, it’s that they love us as much as we love them. Or maybe they’re just trying to guilt us into a snack.