Complex face-off: Dogs with fewer facial markings give humans more expressive stares

WASHINGTON — Man’s best friend has long been recognized for its close relationship with humans. Researchers now suggest that a deeper understanding of this connection can be unlocked by focusing on a dog’s facial markings. A team from George Washington University’s GW Primate Genomics Lab found that dogs with simpler facial markings, such as those with a single color or without any patterns and spots, tend to be more expressive when interacting with humans compared to their counterparts with complex, multi-colored markings.

Dog owners seem to be quite adept at gauging their pets’ expressiveness. The study highlighted that owners of middle-aged dogs, ranging from two to seven years, are particularly accurate in judging their dog’s expressiveness, especially if the dog has a simpler face.

photo of man hugging tan dog
Support dog (Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash)

To come to these findings, researchers engaged with over 100 dogs and their respective owners. Participants were instructed to record their dogs under four distinct scenarios. The team then employed a standard coding method, DogFACS, to scrutinize each dog’s behavior. Additionally, they introduced a unique system to measure and rate the patterns and markings on the dogs’ faces. As part of the study, dog owners filled out a survey, providing details about their pets and assessing their dogs’ facial expressions.

“As dogs become more and more integrated into human society, it’s important that we understand how they communicate with us and how we can better communicate with them,” says Courtney Sexton, the study’s lead author, in a university release. “If we think about this in terms of welfare contexts, or dogs in shelters, or working dogs and service animals, or interactions with dogs in your neighborhood or people at a dog park, knowing what dogs are trying to tell us and what they might be thinking or feeling can really enhance both their experience and ours when we’re together.”

Another intriguing finding was that older dogs tended to be less expressive with their human pals. Sexton speculates this might be due to the fact that long-term canine companions may not feel the need to be overly expressive, having already established a deep connection with their humans.

On the flip side, working dogs or those that have undergone extensive training were observed to be more expressive, possibly due to the nature of their roles demanding clear communication.

The study is published in the journal Animals.

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