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If you've become a dog owner during lockdown, you may have had less of a say in the matter than you think

  • 16 November 2020
  • 3 min read

Research done by The University of Portsmouth has found that some breeds of domestic dog have a specially developed eyebrow muscle that allows them to communicate with humans and influence our behaviour.

Dr Juliane Kaminski has led the research from the Department of Psychology. Her interest in the social evolution of humans has seen her explore relationships with our closest living relatives, raising questions about how animals might see the world differently. She takes us through her research in the latest episode of the University of Portsmouth's podcast, Life Solved.

my question is, how do animals understand the world around them? So do they understand it in similar ways to us or is it very different? So can they, for example, solve problems flexibly?

Dr Juliane Kaminski, Reader in Comparative Psychology

Our closest living relatives

Dr Kaminski began studying primates when working at a research institute to try to understand human cognition. Wondering whether animals had the same 'theory of mind', she conducted experiments designed to test whether chimpanzees could make the same inferences humans do about the thoughts, intentions and feelings of others. Working with rescued chimps at a Ugandan sanctuary, she has built strong relationships with her primate participants over the last 15 years. In the podcast, she explains her findings and how her pet dog inspired this line of inquiry:

your dog seems to know exactly when you are looking and when you are not looking, and they wait for the moment when you are not attentive. And that's when they're going to steal the food.

Dr Juliane Kaminski, Reader in Comparative Psychology

In the course of her studies in canines, Juliane also noticed an interesting and surprising characteristic: Some dogs performed an eyebrow movement, which humans found 'attractive', or in some cases irresistible. She noticed that rescue centre dogs able to do the eyebrow trick were consistently rehomed faster than those that were not able to.

International collaboration

Collaborating internationally with different universities, Juliane analysed the facial anatomy of dogs and found that many domestic breeds possess the magic muscle, causing her to wonder if those breeds, which have thrived alongside humankind, might have benefitted from this genetic characteristic in evolutionary terms.

The "puppy-dog eyes" phenomenon has given the department much to think about, including questions of animal welfare, how we might gain a deeper understanding of animal experiences, and how much our soppy human hearts can really sense about their worlds from a wag or wink.

Listen to the Life Solved podcast

The Life Solved podcast explores the world-changing ideas and research coming out of the University of Portsmouth.

You can listen to Dr Kaminski's episode, "The Power of Puppy Dog Eyes", on all podcast apps. Search for 'Life Solved' on any app or online to listen.

Life Solved is also available to stream via the University of Portsmouth website.

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