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What Your Dog's Cute Behaviors Really Mean

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Pet Services

Do dogs know how to act cute?

Most dog owners will agree that our canine friends are doggone cute. Some of their expressions and actions simply amplify their “cuteness.”  But are they born with the innate “cuteness” or do they learn how to be cute?

Let’s list some of the cutest canine attributes and consider why dogs are cute.

The Dog Smile

cuteness1There is nothing quite as disarming as a full blown doggie smile. You know the one: your dog pulls back the corners of his mouth and shows just enough teeth to be sweet and not enough to be scary. But are our dogs really smiling at us or is there another explanation for this sweet facial expression?

Historically, in wild canids like wolves, the facial expression we call a smile actually communicates submission to member of the same species. To signal that he accepts the fact that he is not “top” dog, the submissive wolf retracts the corners of his lips which makes his face appear to be smiling. The dominant wolf interprets the smile as a submissive gesture and assumes his role as alpha wolf.

Our domestic dogs are relatives of early wolves and interpret the “smile” the same way their ancestors did. So our cute “smiling” dog may simply be indicating that he readily accepts his subordinate position in our family. With that in mind, dominant alpha dogs rarely smile. Pet owners who discount this evolutionary explanation insist that their pets actually smile at them. And they are right in a sense. If we respond to the smiling, submissive pup with a kind word, a pat on the head or a treat, he quickly learns to smile a lot! Even alpha dogs will smile when they realize that positive reinforcement of this cute expression is in store.

The Adorable Head Tilt

Who can resist the cute head tilt? When dogs cock their heads to the side and look up at us, are they doing it to be cute, or is there another reason?

Again, the answer is more physiological than romantic, and there are two reasons for this:

1. To see better. Dogs have eyes that are set on the sides of their heads which makes it difficult for them to focus on objects that are directly in front of them. If they angle their heads, dogs get a clearer view of things that are front and center.

cuteness22. To improve communication. Dr. Stanley Coren, well-known neuropsychologist, suggests that dogs cock their heads to see us better. Dogs assess our facial expressions, eye movements, tone of voice, body language and inflection to improve their communication skills. To make an accurate assessment of our facial expressions, dogs must clearly see our faces. Dr. Coren proposes that dogs have difficulty seeing a person’s entire face because their long muzzles get in the way. To see how a long snout interferes with vision, hold a fist to your nose and look around. You have to turn your head to see an object directly in front of you. Our canine friends essentially do the same thing when they perform the adorable head tilt trick. That cute canine head tilt actually broadens the range of vision and allows a dog to more clearly see a person’s face and communicate better.

3. To hear better. A person with normal hearing is able to discern sound regardless of where it is coming from—front, back, left, or right. The human external ear canal is engineered to pick up sound so efficiently that we don’t have to turn toward the sound to capture it.  Not so with dogs! Dogs have ear flaps (pinnae) that partially or completely cover the ear canal and block sound transmission. To compensate for the interference of ear flaps, dogs perk up their pinnae, and tilt their heads for optimum sound collection.

So even though we recognize that the cute canine head tilt is an endearing doggie feature, the reason behind it may be based on improving vision and hearing. Regardless, if we respond to this cute canine trait with positive reinforcement, we will reinforce the behavior.

Those Puppy Dog Eyes

It’s impossible to resist sweet puppy dog eyes and even though they are called “puppy” dog eyes, they are ageless. Even a 10 year old dog can have precious puppy eyes. This wide-eyed expression makes dogs look sweet and vulnerable and melts our hearts. Why are puppy dog eyes so cute? Again, there is a reasonable, scientific explanation for this cute canine feature. Research by the University of Portsmouth demonstrated that dogs raise their inner brows to make their eyes appear larger. The study also indicates that humans have a definite preference for dogs with childlike faces that include big eyes. When choosing a pet, we opt for dogs that raise their inner brows to make their eyes appear larger and make their faces look more baby-like. It’s possible that human selection of this trait has influenced breed characteristics.

We love dogs and won’t let the evolutionary explanations for canine expressions diminish their cuteness. Despite the reasons why dogs smile, tilt their heads, and look up at us with sweet puppy dog eyes, loving pet owners will always think they are cute.

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