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Paws for Thought: Can Dogs Read Facial Expressions?

Team Butternut, 12th June 2019

Golden retriever dog smiling

We may not be able to engage in full verbal conversations with them, but people form very strong bonds with their dogs (they’re not called man’s best friend for nothing). This process has required both species to learn aspects from human and dog language respectively. In some areas – where our communication systems are similar – this has occurred naturally, but there are also areas in which they’re markedly different.

Can dogs read our facial expressions?

Facial expressions don’t form part of a dogs’ communication repertoire historically, but there’s evidence that they’ve learnt to interpret at least some items from ours. Research suggests that dogs use different parts of their brain to process negative and positive emotions as cued by human facial expressions.

Researcher Marcello Siniscalchi has found that clearly arousing, negative emotions seem to be processed by the right hemisphere of a dog's brain, and more positive emotions by the left side. In another study, all dogs responded in the same way (either positive or negative) to images depicting humans with varied expressions suggesting that they were reading the expressions. And in one piece of research, study dogs were able to tell the difference between happy and angry human facial expressions.

Do dogs need to spend time with people or be trained to recognise facial expressions?  

The answer to this is yes. Even if it’s true that dogs are able to interpret some of our facial expressions, generally, they’re more sensitive to changes in fellow dogs’ expressions than humans. But some people do claim that dogs have learnt facial expressions to use when communicating with humans specifically.

The importance of body language including facial expressions and tone of voice in dog training suggests that dogs possess some understanding of facial expressions.  Your tone of voice is in fact not only connected to your own mood, it can also impact your dog’s mood and wellbeing. And this also makes sense intuitively, in that, the first dogs to demonstrate an ability to interpret the emotions and commands of their owners were those more likely to form bonds with humans and become domesticated all those years ago.

How to speak dog

All animals possess an innate ability to communicate with their own species. For dogs, their two most important means of communication are body language and energy. You may have noticed your dog get excited when you dance or jump around and this is why.

Dogs use their ears, eyes, tail, body posture, body orientation, facial tension and body tension in various ways, to signal their intentions and feelings to other dogs. While these intra-species behaviours are – to an extent – innate, socialisation with other dogs from a young age is important to activate and solidify these natural means of communication.

Do dogs have facial expressions?

As communication signals, facial expressions are less important to dogs than they are to humans. Hence eye contact, a blink or a raised eyebrow may mean one thing to your dog when communicating with you but another when he’s communicating with a canine companion. However, there is an increasing amount of research into dogs facial expressions. Scientists are in fact using vector mapping and facial recognition mapping to map out exactly which conscious states are associated with which expressions. Dogs are believed to adopt the following facial movements when communicating with humans:

• Maintained eye contact


• Blinking and squinting


• Tilted head


• Lowered head


• Raised eyebrows


• Flattened ears 


• Licking lips


• Wrinkled nose


• Grimace - read this post by Reader’s Digest to find out the difference between a snarl and a grimace


Your dog is bilingual

Part of communication between dogs via the eyes includes breaking eye contact. Dogs stare at each other until one or the other breaks the gaze. When this happens, a fight could break out. Whereas, when communicating with humans, dogs are perfectly comfortable breaking eye contact, and doing so preludes to no trouble. But rather, it indicates a comfortable rapport between a dog and his human.

Blinking or squinting

According to vet Dr Danielle Bernal, if a dog blinks or squints while making eye contact with you, he may be contemplating what you’re thinking. This is particularly true if you’ve just given a command. But squinting and repetitive blinking when not looking into your eyes may mean something entirely different. In these cases, squinting can signal pain or illness and rapid blinking can indicate stress or fear. When a dog opens his eyes wide at another dog, this can signal aggression.

Dog smiles

When panting, a dog’s lips are drawn back in a way that looks similar to a human smile. This usually occurs in situations when they’re relaxed and appear happy, such as when out on a walk. So it’s not entirely incorrect to associate a panting or grinning dog with a content dog. However, in reality, this is all that this supposed facial expression is likely to be – a means of cooling down after exercise.

But certain dogs do appear to have learnt to smile like humans. Occasionally dogs will not only pull back their lips (as when panting) but raise them in order to reveal their teeth – something they don’t do when panting. You may have seen examples of this in gifs and memes on social media. The result is rather comical and very cute but the jury is still out as to whether or not this constitutes a smile.

Read up on dog body language for a more comprehensive overview of every behavioural signal your doggo could be displaying to you and other dogs. You could even experiment by adopting some of the stances and movements in front of your dog.

Whether it’s through our communication with them or the food we put into their bowls, at Butternut Box we’re committed to providing the very best for our dogs.

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