Article image

How dogs communicate with us is impacted by their facial markings

A key to understanding and communicating with our dogs might be hidden in their facial markings, according to a very interesting new study from George Washington University.

The enduring bond between humans and their canine companions has never ceased to amaze and fascinate. This relationship, cultivated through thousands of years of co-evolution, has created an incredible understanding between the species. These bonds have allowed dogs to adapt to human forms of communication.

The researchers at the GW Primate Genomics Lab have published a paper in the journal Animals that details their main discovery. Dogs with simpler facial markings make more expressions when interacting with humans than their counterparts with more complex patterns.

Studying dog communication and facial markings

According to the study, dogs with plainer faces (those with solid color or without any specific markings) appear more expressive when engaging with their human companions than dogs with multi-colored or patterned faces.

Furthermore, the study highlighted that people are quite adept at gauging their dogs’ expressivity. However, those with younger dogs, aged between two to seven years, are more accurate if the dog has a plainer face.

Research team used DogFACS

The research involved a diverse group of over 100 dogs and their owners. The researchers instructed the participants to record their dogs in four distinct conditions.

These study parameters allowed the research team to employ a standardized coding system known as DogFACS to analyze each dog’s behavior. Additionally, the team crafted a novel system to scale and evaluate the various facial markings and patterns on the dogs’ faces.

A survey was also conducted, gathering various demographic details about the dogs and assessing how well the participants judged their dog’s expressions. The insights drawn from these inquiries have significant real-world implications that extend beyond mere pet ownership.

“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,” says Courtney Sexton, the study’s lead author.

She further emphasizes, “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.”

Senior dogs have a different set of rules

This study also unveiled fascinating details about senior dogs, who appeared less expressive in communication with their human counterparts. Sexton suggests this may be because older dogs, having a longer and more well-established relationship with their humans, don’t need to exert as much effort to be understood.

Interestingly, researchers found that working dogs or highly trained dogs were more expressive. This demonstrates that in professional relationships, fluent communication is vital, and people may be more skilled at understanding their dogs’ expressions.

This research not only enriches our understanding of the intricate dynamics between dogs and humans but also offers practical insights for anyone living, working, or interacting with dogs. It’s a poignant reminder that the faces of our canine companions may hold secrets to a more profound understanding, nurturing, and strengthening of the extraordinary bond that unites our species.

More about dog communication

Dog communication refers to the various ways dogs convey information to other dogs and to humans. It involves a complex system of signals that include vocalizations, body postures, facial expressions, and scents. This entry explores the main forms of communication in dogs.

Dogs Communicate through Vocalizations


Barking is a common form of dog vocalization that serves various purposes. Dogs bark to alert others of danger, seek attention, express excitement, or signal distress. The pitch, duration, and pattern of barking can convey different meanings.


Dogs whine to express submission, discomfort, or a desire for attention. Whining often occurs when a dog is separated from its owner or wants something, such as food or play.


Growling is a warning signal. Dogs growl to communicate discomfort or aggression, often when their territory is threatened or they feel cornered.


Howling is a form of long-distance communication. Dogs howl to locate other dogs, respond to certain high-pitched sounds, or display a connection with their wolf ancestry.

Dogs Communicate through Body Language

Tail Wagging

Tail wagging communicates emotional states. A wagging tail usually signifies happiness or excitement, while a low or tucked tail often indicates fear or submission.

Ear Position

The position of a dog’s ears can express their mood. Erect ears may show alertness or curiosity, while pinned-back ears often signal fear or aggression.


Dogs use body posture to communicate dominance or submission. A dominant dog may stand tall with its chest out, while a submissive dog may crouch low to the ground.

Facial Expressions

Dogs use facial expressions to communicate with both humans and other dogs. Recent studies, like the one conducted by George Washington University, show that facial markings can influence the level of expressiveness. A relaxed face often indicates contentment, while bared teeth might signal aggression.

Scent Communication

Dogs have an acute sense of smell and use it to communicate. Marking territory with urine or investigating other dogs’ scents helps them gather information about their environment and other animals.

Human Interaction

Dogs have developed an ability to understand human verbal commands and gestures through domestication and training. Some working dogs and service animals exhibit advanced levels of communication with humans, understanding complex commands, and responding to subtle cues.

Dog communication is multifaceted and involves an intricate system of vocalizations, body language, facial expressions, and scent signals. Understanding these forms of communication enhances the relationship between dogs and humans, This facilitates training and promotes empathy and well-being.

This understanding also contributes to the welfare of dogs in various contexts, including shelters, working environments, and domestic living situations. It’s an essential field of study for dog owners, trainers, and professionals working with canine companions.

WATCH: In this video, Sexton discusses additional findings of interest that came out of their work and shares examples of how this research can improve canine-human communication and relationships.

Recordings of participating dogs in this research can be found on Instagram, @how_dogs_talk.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day