You Have Evolution to Thank For Your Dog’s Manipulatively Adorable Look
Researchers call it the “puppy-dog eye effect” — and oh, boy is it effective.
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My dog, Finn, is not the sharpest tool in the shed. He’ll come when called — mostly. When told to “sit” and “stay,” he’ll sort of loiter. And the months I’ve spent trying to teach him basic tricks have brought nothing but humiliation to us both. But, no matter what, I always say “Good dog, Finn!” I have to. It’s the desperate look in his eyes. This facial expression speaks volumes. It says that he loves me, he hates to disappoint, and he’d give anything to make things right.
It’s an insanely winsome, beseeching look that would be too on-the-nose for an animated bunny in a kids movie. It’s a look that self-captions as, “Awww,” or“Who, me?” The expression is so lethally, infamously cute that a Danish pop star wrote a song about it. I saw it on Finn the other night, right after he woke up the entire household at 2 a.m. with loud, alarming barks because a neighbor deposited a little recycling.
That deeply manipulative, adorably effective little smirk Finn fixed me with is what researchers have deemed the “puppy-dog eye” effect.
Research on dog facial expressions
Last April, Professor Anne Burrows and Kailey Olmstead of Duquesne University’s Rangos School of Health Sciences presented a study that traced dogs’ unusually mobile, animated facial expressions to muscle physiology that’s more similar to human beings than to their wolf descendants. “Humans domesticated dogs with attention to the facial expressions that dogs produce, selecting for a suite of facial movement,” the study reads.
In a statement about the study, Burrows, senior author of the study, says that these tiny facial muscles, which flex and tire just as quickly, create a “mutual gaze” between humans and dogs. “These differences suggest that having faster muscle fibers contributes to a dog’s ability to communicate effectively with people,” she adds. “Throughout the domestication process, humans may have bred dogs selectively based on facial expressions that were similar to their own, and over time, dog muscles could have evolved to become ‘faster,’ further benefiting communication between dogs and humans.”
This common physiognomy reflects a human-dog relationship that we, as pup parents obsessed with our babies, appreciate but still don’t fully understand. “Dogs are really unique from any other domesticated animals in that they reciprocate a bond with their humans,” the study’s co-author, Olmstead, tells New Scientist.
Burrows took part in a 2019 Duke study that even found a specific muscle —the “levator anguli oculi medialis” — which allows dogs to dramatically raise their inner eyebrows. The study reports that this muscle, entirely absent in wolves, enables subtle facial movements that “increase paedomorphism.” This is a buzzkill way of saying, as Burrows told Australia’s ABC News, that dogs “hijack our emotions” with subtlety of expression that runs through the entire face.
An adorable result of evolution
Similar fast-twitch muscles around the mouth enable the short, sharp vocalizations of a dog’s bark because they convey such a vast range of emotions — playfulness, curiosity, stranger-danger, excitement — as opposed to a wolf’s howl, which is meant solely for other wolves. “[Barking] was part of the domestication process somehow,” Burrows told ABC. She says her lab’s next focus will be on barking, how it developed, and why humans selected for barking throughout our history together.
Last year, the “puppy-dog eye” study was widely celebrated by animal behaviorists and other scientists. Bradley Smith, a specialist in canine cognition and behavior at Australia’s Central Queensland University hailed it as “a great step” in understanding dog-human communication. But it comes with some degree of embarrassment to us all.
“Dogs have evolved to become the most successful species in the world at communicating with humans,” Smith tells ABC Australia. “They manipulate us into caring for them, taking them for walks, feeding them treats, and all those things.”
Yes, they manipulate. They hijack our emotions. They use adorable facial expressions to destroy our furniture with impunity. It’s not like we can complain: 33,000 years of breeding led to these traits. In fact, forget what I said about Finn being slow on the uptake. Based on the latest research, he’s not the dumb one in our relationship.
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Chris Norris is a writer, reporter, author, and longtime companion to West Highland terrier Gus, recently departed but intensely loved. Chris Norris is has written for The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, GQ, Details, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He lives in New York City with his wife and 10-year-old son.