Dogs notice when we smile, and they like it. They may even ignore a dangerous experience to gaze upon our smiling faces.
Research published in Frontiers of Psychology called “Nasal Oxytocin Treatments Biases Dogs’ Visual Attention and Emotional Response Toward Positive Human Facial Expression,” published in October 2017 noted, “The first evidence that oxytocin can affect the visual processing of heterospecific emotional facial expressions, which is consistent with the observations showing that exogenous oxytocin promotes dogs’ social behaviors toward human partners. Oxytocin facilitates interspecies attachment by enhancing dogs’ motivation to approach and affiliate with humans.”
In other words: Dogs like when we smile.
The researchers, mostly at the University of Helsinki, conducted two different tests on 43 hounds. For each test, the dogs would be shown two different images: a picture of an angry human face followed by a smiling human face.
Since a dog’s pupils will dilate at whatever it feels is the most powerful emotion or detail, the researchers used an eye-measuring device to monitor the dogs’ emotional reactions to each image.
For the first test, dogs experienced the most visceral reactions to the images of angry humans because they felt threatened. This is to be expected, considering a dog’s survival instincts are programmed to react to danger and aggression.
For the second test, however, the dogs viewed the images while under the influence of oxytocina (a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, sometimes called the chemical of love). Researchers were surprised to find that the pups’ pupils dilated in response to the smiles, rather than the frowns. This means that they ignored their survival instincts in favor of a set of pearly whites.
“We were among the first researchers in the world to use pupil measurements in the evaluation of dogs’ emotional states. This method had previously only been used on humans and apes,” said Professor Outi Vainio, who headed the research group.
The “happy face” group, however, was much more quick to touch the images of smiling faces. Dogs find smiling faces much more approachable.
It remains unclear whether dogs are born with the skill to identify human facial expressions or if it comes from their experiences with happy and angry humans. The researchers believe it’s the latter. These particular investigators believe that dogs who have not lived with humans would test differently, but no one knows that for sure.
This research has a practical implication. If dogs appreciate and enjoy our smiles, and are likely motivated by them, smiles can, in theory, be used to train dogs. And, smiles may even be used to ask for and reward everyday behavior, such as asking a dog to get off a sofa.
I ask now if James Taylor’s dog wrote this song:
Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself because I love you, yes, I do.
And when you give me that pretty little pout, it turns me inside out.
There’s something about you, baby, I don’t know.