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Little Fido decoded

AFP – Dog owners often find themselves puzzled by their pets’ behaviour. In an effort to understand their moods, many focus on interpreting canine facial expressions.

However, the task becomes challenging when a dog’s facial features possess distinct physical traits, as indicated by a recent study.

Researchers at George Washington University in the United States found that dogs with complex facial markings, that is those with multicoloured or patterned faces, are less easily understood than those with plainer or more uniform appearances.

To reach the conclusion, the academics asked the owners of 103 canines, aged over six months, to film them in several situations. They used these video recordings to analyse the animals’ facial expressions using a standardised coding system called the Dog Facial Action Coding System (DogFACS).

Study participants were also asked to answer a questionnaire in which they gave their personal interpretation of their pooch’s facial expressions.

The methodology, outlined in an article published in the journal Animals, highlighted the fact that dogs with “plainer” faces “appear to be more expressive” in the presence of humans than their counterparts with more facial markings or varied colouration. They have more pronounced facial expressions, and move their eyebrows or muzzle more, for example.

The scientists believe, however, that the differences are not biological but rather evolutionary.

“Dogs seem to have adapted their behavioural features of the face significantly to communication with humans, regardless of the influence of physical features, and have also developed early emerging social skills to prepare and allow for cooperative communication with humans,” they explain in the study.

In other words, dogs have modified their behaviour through contact with humans. This explains why scientists have noticed that older canines are less demonstrative than their younger siblings when it comes to communicating with their owners. In fact, they don’t need to make as much effort to make themselves understood compared to younger dogs, since they have a longer relationship with their owners.

Dogs aren’t the only ones to improve their communication skills over the years. Human companions of middle-aged dogs, that is those between two and seven years old, are particularly good at understanding their pet’s facial expressions, especially if they have an “easy-to-read” face.

For the study’s lead author Courtney Sexton, the findings will be of interest not only to dog owners, but to anyone who comes into contact with “man’s best friend”.

“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… knowing what dogs are trying to tell us and what they may be thinking or feeling can really enhance both their experience and ours when we’re together,” she said in a statement.