Do Dogs Really Manipulate Us? Beware Misleading Headlines

A recent study only shows that dogs are more expressive when we look at them.

Posted Oct 24, 2017

A few days ago, I received emails about a recent essay of mine called "Dogs Are More Expressive When We're Looking at Them." In this piece, I reported on a recent study by Julianne Kaminsky and her colleagues called "Human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs," in which we learn that the facial expressions of dogs aren't as inflexible and as involuntary as we have previously assumed, and that dogs change their facial expressions when humans are looking at them.

This study is important but it has been misrepresented in at least one popular essay about it. The emails I received referred to an essay called "Finally, the truth about just how manipulative your dog really is." I hadn't read it before, but when I did, I was very surprised by the headline because the research does not back it up. Indeed, the author of the essay writes, "The scientists involved were keen to emphasise that they don’t know exactly what the dogs are trying to say" and they "admit that, though their findings support the idea that these facial expressions are 'potentially active attempts to communicate', it’s more difficult to determine whether this behaviour is intentional."

The admissions by the researchers are right on the mark, and they're worth noting. Their discovery that dogs are more expressive when we're looking at them is very important, but that's really all they learned. And, it's essential to note that the presence of food had no effect on the dogs. In my essay I wrote, "So, all in all, the dogs produced more but not different facial expressions when the human was paying attention to them and food didn't have any effect. So dogs aren't necessarily using people to get food. Kaminski notes that for many people who know dog behavior, the results aren't all that surprising. She also cautions that we really don't know the dogs' intentions when they display different facial expressions when they're being looked at."

So, are their facial expressions really being used to manipulate us? We don't know. One dog expert wrote to me about this and another misleading article in popular press, saying, "Yes the headlines were particularly annoying."

Do wolves understand cause and effect better than dogs?

The other article to which they were referring concerned a study about which I wrote in an essay called "Do Wolves Understand Cause and Effect Better Than Dogs?" One account of this research project in popular media (ScienceDaily) was called "Wolves understand cause and effect better than dogs." There is also a picture of a wolf participating in the experiment about which this essay is concerned with a caption that reads, "Wolves are better in causal reasoning than dogs." 

The ScienceDaily piece is about a research paper by Michelle Lampe and her colleagues titled "The effects of domestication and ontogeny on cognition in dogs and wolves," is available online. In this project, the reasoning abilities of 14 dogs and 12 captive human-socialized wolves were studied. The dogs and wolves were living under identical conditions and underwent the same training regime. While the study seems sound, the small sample size and the fact that the animals were captive needs to be taken into account. 

Dogs are domesticated wolves, and while others and I agree that the study under consideration might provide "insight that the process of domestication can also affect an animal's causal understanding," the authors themselves offer some reasons why the data they present are only suggestive of this relationship. For example, in the ScienceDaily essay we read, "It cannot be excluded, however, that the differences can be explained by the fact that wolves are more persistent to explore objects than dogs. Dogs are conditioned to receive food from us, whereas wolves have to find food themselves in nature." In addition, the researchers recognize that the wolves were socialized and accustomed to human contact, and this might be why they used eye contact, whereas in other studies they did not. 

In the research essay we also read, "Our results seem to imply that domestication impaired dogs’ ability to understand causal relationships, as in this condition, wolves outperformed pack dogs and were the only group to perform above chance level." (my emphasis) All well and good, but the phrase "seem to imply" caught my attention and that of someone who wrote to me. The results do imply this but that all we really can say right now. 

How all of these data relate to the process of domestication remains open to discussion. The researchers write, "In conclusion, our results confirm that wolves can adapt their social cognitive abilities to their social environment, in this case to humans and their communication. Possibly, for this reason, we found no evidence that domestication has altered how dogs use human-given cues. On the other hand, we found that domestication has left a mark on how dogs perform in a causal task."

As are many experts on domestication, I too am leery of explanations of how domestication has worked when only a small number of individuals are studied in highly artificial situations. Along these lines, one very well known dog researcher wrote to me, "Wolf-dog differences cannot be explained on the basis of one to two experiments," while another wrote to me about their concerns about the limitations and questions the researchers themselves raised.

It's essential to pay attention to what research actually shows: What media puts out matters.

My asking for people to be careful about accepting how some headlines are worded is not a criticism of the research about which the essays are concerned. Rather, it's a heads-up to pay close attention to the nitty-gritty details of what a study actually shows, regardless of oftentimes flashy headlines. Some of the notes I receive say something like, "Wow, dogs really do manipulate us" or "I knew that wolves were smarter than dogs." Clearly, catchy and over-stated headlines attract a good deal of attention. This is not surprising. 

The emails I receive show that many people do, in fact, read original essays or try to do so, however, it's understandable why some don't. Some essays aren't easy reading for non-researchers, and some, frankly, are difficult for researchers to get through because of the detail into which the researchers have to go to make their case. As one person wrote to me, "I'm not a scientist and certain headlines do grab my attention. But when I read a popular account and I see the researchers themselves warn people to be cautious about what they actually found, I really appreciate their letting us know."

This is a wonderful time to be interested in the study of animal minds and what's in them, a field called cognitive ethology. I look forward to further studies in this area. Dogs are fascinating beings and learning more about their cognitive capacities will be a win-win for all, regardless of how they compare with their progenitors. Ample research shows that dogs aren't merely dumb-downed wolves. Similar to numerous other animals, dogs are rather clever beings. 

Please stay tuned for more research on the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals. It's an exciting time to do this research and to learn more about what they're thinking and feeling, what's going on in their heads and in their hearts