When It’s Time To Make A Decision, Your Dog Depends On Your Facial Expressions
May 25, 2016
Anyone with a dog knows our canine friends are great at reading humans' emotional cues. Science now confirms that dogs use those cues to guide their own behavior.
We've already seen that dogs can follow and interpret humans' pointing gestures -- perhaps even better than very little kids and chimpanzees.
Brigham Young University psychology professor Ross Flom set out to find out if dogs would respond to "affective" cues, as well -- like looking happy or grossed out, or saying things that are encouraging or not so nice.
To find out, Flom paired 45 pet dogs with unfamiliar humans. The dogs were put in a room with a stranger, and two food bowls that smelled like each of the dogs' favorite treat. An actual treat was put in one of the bowls -- this is called "baiting" the bowl.
The human pointed at the baited bowl, while saying things like "Oh wow, that’s great" or while looking happy. In other rounds of the testing, they pointed at the so-called "sham-baited" bowl while saying "Oh wow, that’s awful," or while looking disgusted. (There were also control rounds, during which the humans kept a neutral affect.)
Each dog underwent a dozen trials to see what effect the happy or disgusted expressions would have.
Here's a fantastic diagram -- probably our favorite we've ever seen in a scientific paper -- showing what the testing room looked like:
The results may surprise you, at least in part. It turns out acting happy around the dogs didn't do much at all, in this experiment. The dogs didn't find the treats more often, or search them out more quickly, than in the control rounds.
The negative chatter and facial expressions are a different story. When the person in the room acted or looked disgusted, it slowed down the dogs' search for the treat -- they stuck by the human for longer before going to look for the treat, and then took longer to find the treat.
The implication? "I think it shows or highlights that not only do dogs use our physical behaviors in guiding their exploration but also that our affective behaviors further influence canines’ exploratory behavior," Flom said in an email to BarkPost.
In other words: dogs are taking in our facial expressions and the tones in our voice -- not just our physical gestures or verbal commands -- and their behavior changes in response.
Flom, whose study was published in the journal Animal Cognition, sees these findings more broadly as fitting in with a bigger understanding of the complicated, nuanced ways that dogs and humans have learned to communicate, and exist, together over the last 15,000-odd years.
“There is a unique and special bond between humans and dogs,” Flom said to BYU's online publication -- which makes us want to go give our dogs lots of treats, without making them do any work at all.