Reading facial expressions in dogs
I have attended seminars, watched video and seen photos explaining facial expressions in dogs but have noticed a trend towards them all using, for lack of a better term, the more natural looking breeds. Like this cutie below, a smooth chow chow. Here he is showing a neutral expression, interested but not overly so. Most people can read this as not threatening.
Compare that to this guys face below. (Zeus) Is this neutral, excited or contemplative? Actually this is a trick question to a point. He is an example of needing to know your dog well. Because of his misshapen mouth the tongue interferes with what we might consider a normal expression. In this particular dogs case this is his relaxed face. (and somewhat contemplative, which I will be explaining, hint a tucked lip)
For those that think he is showing a whale eye here he is with a more relaxed body posture. Some breeds have facial features that need to be taken into account. In his case loose eye lids.
The point with those photos is to show the drastic difference in the facial structure of some dogs. Because dogs do also communicate with facial expressions, along with body language, it helps if we can read them as well as their more natural bred counterparts. I hope this post will point out some tips to help accomplish that. I know when I first brought Missy our frenchie home I felt lost. I watched at her looking at me and thought to myself, I have no idea what this dog is thinking! I was used to reading akitas, with a nice big tail and long muzzle and clear signals. I had entered a whole new world of communication. Not only was her face foreign to me, she had no tail to speak of to watch either. I think it is like speaking to someone with an accent. You sort of understand what they are saying but mistakes can be made due to lack of clarity.
Pug above on left has a relaxed open mouth and soft eyes. (for this breed) The one on the right is what I would say is less relaxed. A tucked top lip and brow furrowing. (she was actually between barks)
One of the things I read by a well known behaviorist was how a dog that never gets to the point of having an open relaxed mouth during her behavior evaluation isn’t truely relaxed. (at least in that context) It has been my experience in owning what some consider bully breeds, (brachycephalic) that may not always be the case. Some examples: Our pug Jenny only opens her mouth when she is warm and needs to pant. Missy rarely has an open mouth unless she is very excited or is also panting. Dash, our foster frenchie never had his mouth open unless he was hot and panting. The same for my sisters bulldog Zeus. His open mouth meant panting. Now I know that isn’t a huge cross section in general but I certainly find it interesting and made note of it.
What also needs to be considered with the smushed faces is that some pant alot due to breathing issues. So looking for an open relaxed mouth is only one part of the picture. You need to take the whole dogs body language into account.
So the first step is knowing what relaxed looks like. For that particular breed or perhaps in some cases for a specific dog. Below is showing Jennys relaxed face. She has an odd ear set to begin with (for her breed) and this is her neutral position. She is also showing soft eyes. Because some of these breeds have eyes that protrude they may not look soft compared to other breeds. Some bully type breeds can also have excessive wrinkling in the forehead which can interfere with reading what is the normal. We might not be able to see excessive brow furrowing or the furrowing around the muzzle through the normal wrinkles. There is relaxed wrinkling, vs concerned or even offensive threat. In this photo her lips are also soft and relaxed.
The photo below is a more concerned look. Her top lip is being held slightly up and tucked and her eyebrow furrows are deep. The whale eye is also a sign of stress or concern.
Here she is showing her “Oh My DOG there is FOOD!” A great example of excited or over stimulation. Besides her protruding eyes and whites showing there is extra brow furrowing as well.
The dog shown below is Jake, a boxer. This is a version of his neutral face. Slightly submissive, notice the ear set is being held back. (Typical reaction to a flashing camera for some dogs, it isn’t always fun for them.) Jake is in interesting case as you’ll see below.
This is what I call the “thinking face”. (shown below) Notice a bottom tooth is held over the top lip. I haven’t found a reference to this anywhere. I see it whenever I believe the dog is contemplating something or trying to figure out a problem. Based on my experience and seeing it at other times with other dogs as well, my theory is that it is indeed a “thinking face”.
The interesting thing about Jake is seen below.
Sometimes what might be mistaken as a thinking face or other facial expression is the fact that his tongue barely fits in his mouth!!! This is a great example of why we need to take individual issues for each dog into account.
Here is another example of the “thinking face”. Because she has some lack of pigment above where the tooth is resting it can be hard to see where the tooth is and it can be missed.
Here is a side view of Missy with her thinking face. It is also showing forward alert. Notice the wrinkles in front of her ears. (she is bumming popcorn, one of her favorite foods)
An ariel view of her more relaxed but still alert. She was watching other dogs in a group class. Mouth closed but lips neutral, not totally loose.
The photo below shows a neutral relaxed face but with a slight “thinking face” element to it. You can see part of her gums/teeth. The lips are long and loose however and relaxed.
Below is a great relaxed side photo of Dash. He is interested in whatever is off camera but not overly so. There are no wrinkles showing in front of his ears. Full loose lips.
Below is an example of a partial thinking face or not relaxed. Notice the top lip is slightly up and not loose. A slight whale eye though he was also suffering from Cherry eye at the time as well. no wrinkles however which shows he wasn’t worried.
Below is one of my favorite photos of Dash. I also believe it is the only one I have of him with his mouth open. As humans I believe we definitely respond to the look of a smile. I remember it was taken out in the yard after a play session and he was warm and panting.
I hope this helps explain some things more clearly. As I said the thinking face is only my theory thus far. I have seen it in other breeds as well and always in the context of contemplation on the dogs part. (or my assumption of contemplation) I have no proof otherwise, only my experience as a dog owner and trainer. Because canine behavior fascinates me so much I tend to watch alot of dogs. Learning to read their actions is also very important as a trainer that works with behavioral cases. Knowing the nuances of behavior helps you best address the problems an owner may be having. (or avoid a problem when working with an aggressive dog)
For more information on reading body language and facial expressions in dogs check out the following:
“Canine Body Language ~ A photographic guide” by Brenda Aloff
“For the love of a dog” by Patricia McConnell PhD
“The Language of Dogs” DVD by Sarah Kalnajs
“Am I safe” DVD by Sarah Kalnajs
These are just a few examples of what is out there on the subject.
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