Understanding dogs’ facial expressions; could one look determine rehoming success?

At Agria Pet Insurance, we spend a lot of time with rehoming organisations up and down the country, and we are often struck by the different experiences animals have when they’re looking for a new home.

Puppies and kittens aside, when it comes to adult pets, some find their forever home within days, but for others, the stay in temporary or foster care can last for months, even years. But why? What is it that makes some pets irresistible to adopters while others are continually overlooked?

So, we were very interested to learn about the work carried out by Dr Juliane Kaminski, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, through K9 Magazine. Juliane founded the Dog Cognition Centre three years ago, and has since discovered a specific facial expression made by dogs which could be the key.

Juliane created the centre to study an animal’s understanding of the environment they live in, and observe to what extent that understanding is flexible or not. Juliane is also interested in the uniqueness of human cognition and the extent to which an animal’s cognitive skills compare with that of a human.

Previously working with dogs and chimpanzees in parallel, Juliane had already uncovered some remarkable results. “I got more and more interested in the obvious differences between the species. We saw dogs solving problems in a way that not even chimpanzees, human’s closest living relative, can,” says Juliane.

A key area in the study was involved with dogs’ facial expressions and how they use these to communicate with humans. By developing the ground-breaking Dog Facial Action Coding System (DogFACS), the centre could analyse a dog’s facial expression in certain situations and study how this can influence a human response.

Modelled on the Human Facial Action Coding System (FACS) created by Ekman and Friesen in 1978 (which has been successfully adapted for several other species, including chimpanzees), DogFACS is based on an understanding of the facial anatomy of dogs, combined with the manual details of the system, to code the facial movements of dogs.

Inspired by published research, Juliane and her team created a study in which they filmed dogs in a shelter environment across the country. They were specifically interested in whether facial movements or any other behaviours displayed by the dogs influenced how quickly they would be adopted.

What they found was incredible. There was just one common denominator which influenced their success at finding a new home – a single facial expression. Some dogs produced this more often than others, and those dogs found a home faster.

That facial expression, known as AU101, effectively is all about a dog’s inner eyebrow movement. Juliane says this movement makes the dog’s eyes big, and describes it as, “a typical dog face that we all find so cute.”

Juliane explained more about the findings, “Other behaviours, such as tail-wagging and approaching people, even colour of coat, didn’t have an effect. It was just this facial movement, so we are now looking at whether dogs have any voluntary control over this movement and whether, for example, the dog has learned to use it to manipulate us.

“So far what we can see is that dogs produce more facial movements when we are looking at them compared to when we are not, but it doesn’t look like they are using specific movements to manipulate us in any way.”

We can’t wait to find out more from Juliane and her team as her fascinating research continues.

To find out more about the Dog Cognition Centre please visit: www.port.ac.uk/department-of-psychology/facilities/dog-cognition-centre

With thanks to K9 Magazine and their article originally published in November 2016.