Let’s face it, as humans, our faces offer a wide range of options when it comes to expressing our feelings. We can smile, frown, raise an eyebrow, wink and roll or widen our eyes. We can even wrinkle our nose, drop our jaw, purse our lips, blush or become pale. All of this happens courtesy of several facial muscles that allow us to create lines and folds in our faces and several movements so we can effectively convey our emotional states. When it comes to canines, things can be a tad bit more complicated as their facial muscles aren’t as developed as ours; however, Mother Nature has likely figured out a way to compensate for the deficit.
Dogs may not have facial muscles that are as developed as humans, but they rely on several features of their faces to convey their emotions. A dog’s eyes may squint, blink, show whale eyes, or stare intently.
The pupils may be dilated and the area above the dog’s eyes may appear tense (furrowed brow). A dog’s mouth may be closed tightly shut with tense muscles or opened in a relaxed manner. Yawning can take place.
The corners of the dog’s lips (commissures) may be pulled back or the lips may be puckered forward or lifted in a snarl. The tongue may be hanging out relaxed or the edges may be curled (spatulate tongue). The tongue may also be flicking in and out or quickly licking the lips and nose. These are just a few of many facial expressions in dogs.
Head markings seem to emphasize facial expressions, and well- delineated markings are often found in social animals with developed communicative systems, explains biologist and author Roger Abrantes in the book “Dog Language, An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior.” There are therefore chances that facial markings in dogs are meant to enhance elements on the dog’s face which play a role in communication.
There is not much research conducted on this yet, but there may be chances that dogs with distinct facial markings may have a better time communicating than dogs who have fewer markings or lack facial markings altogether.
However, just because some dogs don’t have distinct facial markings (think Labs and goldens), doesn’t necessarily mean they will struggle to communicate with other dogs. Dogs have many ways to communicate!
Many dogs have distinct facial markings that may play a role in helping them communicate. Ever wondered why Doberman, Rottweilers and Bernese mountain dogs have copper or brown markings on their faces?
In these dog breeds, the markings on their cheeks may help emphasize when they snarl, while the markings above their eyes may help emphasize their eye movements, suggests dog trainer and behavior consultant Liz Palika, in her book “The New Age Dog.”
And what about dogs with very dark muzzles such as German Shepherds, mastiffs, boxers and great danes? In this case, their dark muzzles may allow a dog’s pearly white teeth to stand out.
Even some dogs who are entirely white may have some facial features that point out to the eyes and mouth. For instance, in the Samoyed or great Pyrenees those dark-rimmed eyes, black noses and black lips may help emphasize these important areas of expression.
As mentioned, not much research has been conducted on dog facial markings, but there’s an interesting study conducted in Japan by Sayoko Ueda of the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kyoto University. In the study, several species of the canidae family were divided in 3 groups.
In group A were gathered specimens with irises that were lighter than their facial pupils and with other facial markings that made the eyes easy to locate. The animals in this group included the grey wolf, coyote and the golden jackal.
In group B were specimens with only facial markings in the eye area and no visible pupils. The animals in this group included the maned wolf, the dingo and the kit fox.
Finally, in group C were specimens that had no facial markings. The animals in this group included bush dogs, tanukis and African wild dogs.
The study concluded that animals equipped with eyes that were easier to locate belonged to species who lived and hunted in groups where eye communication was useful to bring down large prey. Whereas, animals with eyes that were more difficult to spot, were more likely to lead solitary lives. This seems to suggest that “eye-based conversations” must have played a crucial role in allowing animals to adhere to social functions such as living and hunting together.
“Various predators camouflage their eyes to increase their hunting success.” ~Cott HB (1940)
As seen, the facial markings in different members of the canidae family may have served various adaptive functions, but what about dogs? Domestic dogs surely share a genetic basis for the conspecific gaze-communication observed in wolves.
While dogs no longer hunt, they seem to understand the gaze signal of other dogs and humans. When it comes to gazing behavior directed towards humans, it was found that it was much longer in domestic dogs compared to gray wolves.
This seems to suggest that longer gazing behaviors directed towards humans may be a trait that has been selected artificially. In dogs though, their facial color patterns have quite varied during the selective breeding process by humans.
Dogs today have different types of facial markings and some markings are distinctive of certain breeds, so much that they’re in some breed standards. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the most common facial markings in dogs:
- Haggerty dot: a little circle of dark hair found on top of the head in the middle of a white blaze. Often seen in Boston terriers.
- Blenheim spot: also known as the mark of “Duchess Thumb Print” is a chestnut spot in the middle of the forehead seen in Cavalier King Charles spaniels.
- Blaze: a white strip in the center of the dog’s face usually between the dog’s eyes.
- Kiss Marks: tan spots found on a dog’s cheeks and over the eyes.
- Mask: a dark shading on the dog’s front portion of the skull.
- Spectacles: markings over or around the eyes or from eyes to ears.
- Muzzle bands: a white marking around the muzzle.
- Bentley Star: a characteristic of the Australian Cattle Dog consisting of a group of white hairs on the dog’s forehead. It can be present in both red and blue heelers.
- The New Age Dog Kindle Edition by Renaissance Books (July 8, 2014)
- Dog Language – An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior Kindle Edition
- Ueda S, Kumagai G, Otaki Y, Yamaguchi S, Kohshima S (2014) A Comparison of Facial Color Pattern and Gazing Behavior in Canid Species Suggests Gaze Communication in Gray Wolves (Canis lupus). PLoS ONE 9(6): e98217. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098217
- Cott HB (1940) Adaptive coloration in animals. London: Methuen. ix+508+plate48 p.
- American Kennel Club, Glossary, retrieved from the web on March 5th, 2016.
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