Puppy Eyes: More Than Just
A Pretty Face.

Much like human kids, dogs are notorious for turning on the cuteness factor at just the right moments. Whether it’s to gain an extra treat, a belly rub, or to maybe even comfort their owner, dogs excel at working those “puppy dog eyes”. Researchers have been working on the most adorable study ever, to determine if “puppy dog eyes” are a real thing. Well, good news, dog lovers. Those lovable eyes might be trying to tell us something.

We all know “the look”: dogs open their eyes wide, raise their eyebrows and stare seemingly into your soul. In a new study, researchers, using the DogFACS coding system, found that these facial expressions increased significantly when humans were actually paying attention to the dogs. Prior to this, there have been several documented studies that prove dog’s behavior is affected by human attentional state, including an increase in vocalization (as if we needed science to say our dogs really do talk to us!). This new research focuses specifically on facial expressions and eye movements, which was previously thought to be merely reflexive.

Most dog owners would agree that their furry friend has certain trademark facial expressions, reserved for different situations, just like humans. The important question is if these expressions are voluntary, therefore a sign of communication, or involuntary emotional reflexes.

This new research suggests that these expressions are active in nature, possibly reflecting a true sign of intentional communication. Dr. Juliane Kaminski, lead researcher states, “The findings appear to support evidence dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays.”

Interestingly, the study also found that these facial expressions were not altered by the presence or absence of exciting stimuli, like food or treats. What was important was the visibility of the human’s eyes to the dogs involved. Essentially, our eyes are used as physical cues to turn on the charm, science says.

Humans are apparently more interesting and exciting than treats, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has witnessed the sheer joy a good treat can bring to a hungry pup!  The food may excite the dog, but won’t cause its facial expression to change, says the study.  The dogs in the latest study focused solely on the humans, which reinforces the fact that dogs really are excellent listeners. Dog parents everywhere know the feeling of undivided attention and unconditional love that dogs can give, and now science is backing it up. We may never know exactly what our beloved furry friends are thinking, but we are coming to understand more about how they communicate.

Not only is this research exciting for us as dog lovers, because we are getting closer to understanding that our beloved pups might actually be communicating with us, but it’s important for the dogs, too.

Researchers found that dogs in shelters who exhibited one of the expressions, making the eyes appear bigger (aka puppy dog eyes!), actually were rehomed faster! So there it is, there’s now scientific research backing up why you couldn’t resist that dog at the shelter.

Surprisingly, a study also found that tail-wagging had a negative impact on speed of adoption. The thinking is perhaps that wide-eyed look reminds us humans of young babies or sweet innocence, but it makes us want to open our hearts to these bright-eyed canines. It is unclear as to why tail-wagging was connected to a longer adoption time, because it typically indicates a friendly demeanor.

The next time you catch your dog staring at you, pay attention to their eyes and facial expressions. Know that maybe they are trying to communicate with you after all. Give them an extra smile or a pat on the head, to show that maybe you understand them, too.​