Scientists Say Your Dog is Probably Manipulating You

Your dog gets you. No, he really, really gets you — science says so. Recently, scientists have been studying the way dogs and humans interact and the results are lending credence to the claims dog owners have been making for years: Your dog can just tell how you’re feeling.

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One such study, published in Biology Letters, found that dogs are capable of reading facial and vocal expressions in humans. Translation: When you look or sound sad or happy or whatever else you’re feeling, your dog can pick up on that. This is a win for pet lovers, who have known this in their gut for years and finally have the cold hard science to back up that gut feeling.

But that begs the question: Are we humans as good at reading our dogs as they are at reading us? We might have just assumed that yeah, of course we are, but science is finally putting it to the test...and the results might surprise you. To find the answer, we need to look to the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a project that was started in the 1970s to study the range of expressions humans make. Now, that same methodology is being applied to dogs and DogFACS is officially the most fascinating field of research we’ve read about in ages.

“The literature so far is about dogs understanding human expressions,” Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth told New York Magazine’s Science of Us about research into DogFACS. “We’re sort of turning that around.”

To understand DogFACS, scientists had to start by identifying action units, or AUs, (meaning the movements of facial muscles used in expressions) in dogs. So far, they’re found 11 AUs and an additional five Ear Action Descriptors (EADs), because dogs’ ears, as we all know, are most expressive. Using combinations of these 16 movements, scientists are looking to catalogue the facial expressions dogs make and find correlations between their expressions and the emotions they occur in response to.

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Humans have a bad habit of projecting our own feelings onto dogs. We see something that looks like a grin and assume the dog is happy, when in reality, it could baring its teeth for any number of reasons. We see those sad puppy dog eyes that warm our hearts and we assume the dog in question is sad and needs our help. But do these expressions really mean what we think they mean or are dogs even smarter than we give them credit for? Are they making faces as a result of feelings they have or making faces they know will manipulate us into doing what they want? There’s research that suggests we’re being manipulated, at least sometimes.

When it comes to puppy dog eyes, whatever the motivation is, the result is clear: Puppy dog eyes make us melt into a puddle of goo that will do anything to make the sad puppy feel better. In one recent study, researchers filmed dogs in a shelter and catalogued the appearance of puppy dog eyes (or, as the scientists call it, AU101). Well, to be fair, they also looked at other expressions, but good ol’ AU101 was the only expression that had a direct impact on how quickly the puppies were adopted. Unsurprisingly, the more frequently a dog flashed humans with puppy dog eyes, the more quickly it was adopted.

Were the AU101-flashers really the saddest and most in need of adoption? Maybe, maybe not. But, until we learn more about what dogs’ expressions really mean, science would caution us to stop projecting our human feelings onto our furry friends and try to dig a little deeper to gauge what they’re really feeling.