Most pet owners already know that dogs communicate with their humans in a number of ways. But a recent study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, suggests that domestic canines have learned how to get what they want from humans, using only their eyebrows. The study points to the difference between wolves, who have little muscle in their eyebrow region, versus dogs, who have pronounced musculature above the eyes, allowing them to be more expressive. The study’s thesis states, “We hypothesize that dogs’ expressive eyebrows are the result of [evolution] based on humans’ preferences.”
The study measured expressions that dogs made when in the presence of humans, compared to expressions that they make in the presence of other animals or alone. Researchers found the dogs’ expressions when in contact with humans “resembles an expression humans produce when sad, so its production in dogs may trigger a nurturing response.” As the news traveled around the interwebs, dogs (via their humans) commented on the entirely unsurprising info. On the Twitter account Thoughts Of A Dog (@dog_feelings), an account with 3.3 million followers, one canine explained how he used only the “widest eyes I could manage” to convince his human to work from home.
i’m sitting next to the human. as they put on their shoes to leave. i glanced at the door. then slowly up at them. with the widest eyes i could manage. long story short. we’re working from home today
— Thoughts of Dog® (@dog_feelings) June 26, 2019
Survival Of The Sweetest
As with pre-verbal human babies, it appears dogs evolved to use their facial expressions and vocalizations to elicit the desired response from their caregivers. It’s possible dogs may have learned this behavior by observing tiny humans as they were huddled together around the fire. Cats, too, have modified their behaviors in order to gain human favors. In 2009, a British study suggested that cats changed the pitch and speed of their purring at mealtimes, which the researcher interpreted as a mimic of a baby’s wail. Indeed, animal behaviorists have long explained that cats only meow for the benefit of humans; cat-to-cat communication does not include the higher-pitched meows we have come to associate with felines.
Evolution may also explain why puppies and kittens are so darn cute. In 2018, The Atlantic published a summary of Arizona State University’s findings that humans find young pups cutest between six to eight weeks old, around the same time their mothers stop nursing them. The article explains that this is around the time pups begin to exhibit the behaviors outlined in the PNAS study. Therefore, pet cuteness is not just fodder for memes, but an evolutionary response to human caregiver preferences.
This is my face I use to get my dad to go on an adventure.
I call it the “thousands of years of natural selection to manipulate the humans who have selected us.”
Don’t blame me dadguy. Blame Thag who 10,000 years befriended the first wolf. #dogs #sunday #boop pic.twitter.com/t5pS9QFyzV
— Bunsen and Beaker (@bunsenbernerbmd) March 30, 2020
Look Who’s Talking
Research into the human-canine bond has turned up some amazing results over the years, including stats that point to lower risk of cardiac-related events in dog owners, and better school performance in children who grow up with dogs. Though there have been studies that point to other companion animals communicating easily with humans, only dogs have lived in such close proximity to us for tens of thousands of years. (In comparison, cats, horses, and birds were domesticated between 4,000-6,000 years ago.) With a nearly 30,000-year head start in our company, some researchers have posited the idea that dogs may eventually become verbal, and in some ways already are.
We already know that dogs can understand and interpret commands and modulations in voice. In 2011, The New York Times profiled Chaser, a border collie with a vocabulary of more than 1,000 nouns. Prior to Chaser, knowing 400 nouns was considered genius-level for a canine. But what about learning to speak beyond a bark? While there’s no evidence — yet — that the canine mouth is changing shape, millions online can recall a time when their pet seemed to talk. Huskies are one of the breeds most frequently accused of “sounding human,” as evidenced in one video, nearing two million views, where a toddler and husky converse on a picnic table.
I have watched this approximately 9,345,678 times so far today pic.twitter.com/6ND1H1qAMF
— bebe girl lisa (@Lisa_Bizzle) November 9, 2019
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