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Dogs’ facial markings influence how they bond with humans

Researchers at George Washington University have explored the unspoken language of loyal companionship shared between humans and their dogs. The study reveals intriguing insights about how dogs’ facial markings can be indicative of the depth of their bonds with their human owners.

Canine communication 

Over 65 million households in the United States currently enjoy the love and dedication of canine companions, as reported by Statista. These beloved pets are famous for their affectionate and loyal nature. Yet, the essence of the powerful connection formed between humans and dogs has remained a mystery.

The new study sheds light on this mystery by delving into the possible implications of dogs’ facial markings on human-canine relationships. 

The report suggests 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.

Studying dogs’ facial markings

Expressiveness in dogs refers to the various ways dogs communicate with both humans and other animals through physical gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language. 

This ability plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining strong bonds between dogs and their owners.

How the research was conducted 

For the investigation, the researchers observed 100 dogs along with their respective owners across four different scenarios. 

Each dog’s behavior was scrutinized using the Dog Facial Action Coding System (DogFACS). This innovative system enables researchers to quantify and evaluate the dogs’ facial markings and expressions.

The results showed a remarkable degree of accuracy among owners of middle-aged dogs (aged two to seven years) in interpreting their pets’ expressiveness, particularly if the dogs had simple facial markings.

Participants were also surveyed about various dog demographics and their aptitude at discerning their pet’s expressions.

Dog welfare

“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,” said study lead author Courtney Sexton.

“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.”

What the researchers learned 

The researchers noted that senior dogs tend to be less expressive toward their human partners. 

According to Sexton, this may be attributed to the established rapport older dogs share with their owners, reducing the need for overt expressiveness to communicate effectively. 

By contrast, working dogs and those with extensive training were observed to be more expressive, likely because clear communication is imperative in their roles.

Understanding canine expressiveness can immensely benefit both dogs and their human companions by promoting better communication and stronger bonds. 

Expressiveness in dogs

Understanding a dog’s expressiveness is important for responsible pet ownership as it helps in interpreting the animal’s needs, emotions, and well-being accurately. 

By paying close attention to a dog’s various forms of expression, owners can build stronger, more empathetic relationships with their furry companions.

Facial markings of dogs

Dogs have an array of facial expressions that they use to convey different emotions and intentions. For instance, the raising of eyebrows, exposing teeth, and movements of the ears can all signal different states of mind, ranging from excitement and contentment to anxiety and aggression.


Dogs communicate vocally through barks, whines, growls, and howls. Each vocalization can carry different meanings depending on its pitch, duration, and frequency. 

For example, a high-pitched bark might indicate excitement or attention-seeking, while a low growl could signal discomfort or warning.

Body language

Dogs utilize their entire body to communicate. The position of the tail, the stiffness or relaxation of the body, and the way a dog approaches or avoids something all provide crucial cues about what the dog is feeling or intending.

Learning from humans

Research shows that dogs are adept at reading human emotions and facial expressions. Dogs can understand human smiles, frowns, and even the direction of a person’s gaze, adjusting their behavior in response to these cues.

Variations in expressiveness

Different breeds and individual dogs can vary significantly in their levels of expressiveness. For example, some breeds are known for being more vocal, while others are renowned for their expressive eyes or energetic body language.

Training and socialization

A dog’s expressiveness can also be shaped by training and socialization. Dogs that have been well-socialized from a young age are typically more comfortable expressing themselves and are better at interpreting the expressions and cues of others.

As dogs age, there might be changes in their expressiveness. Senior dogs may not be as energetically expressive as their younger counterparts, but they often develop a deep understanding and communication rhythm with their owners, as noted in the study.

Health implications

Changes in a dog’s normal expressive behavior can also be indicative of health issues. For instance, a usually expressive and energetic dog becoming suddenly withdrawn and quiet might be experiencing pain or discomfort.

The research is published in the journal Animals.

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