New research suggests that man’s best friend may have evolved to handle angry owners – by looking away.

Facial expression was found to alter dogs’ viewing behavior, such that they tend to avoid angry humans’ gaze even if they can look at equally upset canines longer. According to University of Helsinki scientists, this habit may have evolved as they became domesticated and dealt with conflict with humans.

The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers analyzed 31 dogs of 13 breeds, which were given positive training and clicker-trained to stay put in front of a monitor without act of command or restraint.

The team used eye gaze tracking to see how dogs view the emotions of both human and dog faces.

It appeared that the dogs’ viewing behavior depended on the species: threatening human faces induced avoidance, while the same upset canine faces evoked a longer looking response. What then accounts for the difference?

The tendency to look away when encountering threatening human faces, according to the findings, may likely be an evolutionary adaptation – something that enabled the popular pet to bond better with humans.

"Domestication may have equipped dogs with a sensitivity to detect the threat signals of humans and respond [to] them with pronounced appeasement signals," explained study author Sanni Somppi in a statement.

The results also showed that while dogs first looked at the eyes – typically examining them longer than the mouth or nose – they based their perception upon scanning the whole face. This suggested that dogs do not sense emotions merely from a single facial feature but, like human beings, through piecing information together from all facial features.

Previous research from the University of Helsinki discovered that personally familiar faces, social interaction, and other socially attached objected in images attracted dogs’ attention.

According to the researchers, this is the first proof of emotion-tied gaze patterns in non-primate animals. Charles Darwin proposed 150 years ago that there are evolutionary roots shared between the form and function of emotional expressions of humans and animals.

Photo: Gareth Williams | Flickr

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