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Dogs Don't Like Passive or Unresponsive Human Faces

Dogs need a stream of active facial expressions to keep them focused on a person

Key points

  • An active stream of facial expressions is part of the normal communication process among humans.
  • A still and unresponsive face causes a negative reaction for young human children.
  • Dogs also do not seem to want to continue interacting with a person whose facial response is unchanging and unresponsive.
Tilly Kettle/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Source: Tilly Kettle/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

According to some new research, your face may be the key to building a better bond with your dog. When we are trying to communicate with someone, the human face undergoes a number of changes in expression which help to clarify what we are feeling and the emotions that we are undergoing during that interaction. If a person's face is passive and unresponsive, this violates the rules of normal communication, and the individual observing the passive face may interpret it as a personal rejection and respond with a surge of negative emotion.

The impact that an unresponsive face has on communication has been clearly demonstrated in young human children using a procedure that is called the "Still-Face Paradigm." Typically the test sequence is divided into three phases. In the first phase, which is usually called the "interaction phase," a person (the mother or an experimenter) actively interacts with a child.

Then in a second phase, which is usually called the "still-face phase," the person suddenly stops all interaction and becomes unresponsive. During this phase, the adult continues to look at the child but remains still and non-expressive. Finally, to see if there are any after-effects, the interaction moves into the third phase, which is usually called the "reunion phase," where active interaction is restarted at the level that it was before.

Data from studies using this procedure show that children really don't like the still-face phase. They break off eye contact, they stop smiling, and they show an array of more negative emotional signs when their reaction is compared to the previous phase of normal face-to-face communication. Physiological changes are also observable, including an increase in heart rate and even more stress-related hormones in their blood. All of this is happening because the usual stream of active facial responses is no longer occurring between child and adult.

Gabriela Barrera at the University of Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina, and her colleagues at the CEU Cardenal Herrera University in Valencia, Spain, wondered if dogs might also need to see an expressive face in order to comfortably communicate with humans. This seems like a reasonable presumption since there is evidence that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to the mind of a 2 to 3-year-old human.

The new study used 23 Beagle dogs of various ages. The test consisted of three 1-minute phases. An experimenter, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor, began with a minute of normal dog-human interaction. This was followed by the still-face phase, where the experimenter sits quietly gazing at the dog while maintaining a neutral expression (think poker face) but not talking to the dog nor petting it. Finally, in the third phase, normal human-dog interactions were resumed.

Being confronted with a passive, unresponsive human face had an immediate and significant effect on the behavior of the dogs in much the same way as it did with human children. The analyses found that the dogs showed a two-thirds reduction in the number of attempts to make eye contact with the person when confronted with the still-face. In addition, the frequency of physical contact initiated by the dog reduced by more than half. In fact, the dogs drifted away from the person, spending only around half as much time close to them.

The simple interpretation of these results is that a person with a passive, unresponsive face was less attractive to the dogs, and so they began to break off their attempts to socially interact with that individual. A stream of active, responsive facial expressions seems to be necessary to convince the dog that some sort of meaningful communication and social exchange is occurring.

I am reminded of a beginner's dog obedience class that I observed many years ago. The instructor advised the class that if they wanted to meaningfully communicate and bond with their pet dogs, they should look their dog in the face when they spoke to them. "You've got to be like a ham actor and make your expressions clear in the same way that you do when you're trying to talk to a child or infant. That way, you keep the dog focused on you and start to build a working relationship."

While it is not clear from these data that you need to deliberately amplify your facial expressions as he suggested, these new findings make it quite clear that if your face is too unresponsive and not adequately expressive, your dog is likely to be less motivated to try to interact with you, which could greatly reduce the likelihood of your developing a meaningful bond with your pet.

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Gabriela Barrera, Federico Guillén-Salazar & Mariana Bentosela (2021). Still-face Effect in Dogs (Canis familiaris). A Pilot Study, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2021.1923493