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Dr Juliane Kaminski chats about the eyebrow muscle dogs use to wrap us round their paws

26 min listen

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In this Life Solved podcast episode, hear from Dr Juliane Kaminski, whose fascination with the animal mind and its difference from our own is leading to insights in how we can better relate to our furry friends.

Her team have found out how a particular eyebrow movement in domestic dogs can be used to influence our behaviour, meaning human beings are wrapped around their paws, without even realising it!

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One thing that got me really excited is that we could see that dogs would move their faces more, so show more expression, more facial movement when a person was looking at them.

Dr Juliane Kaminski, Reader in Comparative Psychology

Episode transcript:

Narrator: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. My name is John Worsey and in this programme, we hear from brilliant researchers and scientists about the world-changing work that's unfolding right here in Portsmouth, as well as how it could impact our future. We're starting this new series close to home by hearing how our four-legged friends have us wrapped around their paws.

Juliane Kaminski: There is a certain facial movement that dogs produce, which is an eyebrow movement, and this eyebrow movement seems to be very attractive for people.

Narrator: Today, I'm talking to a researcher whose fascination with the animal mind and its difference from our own is leading to insights in how we can better relate to our furry pals.

Juliane Kaminski: It turned out it really is so for chimpanzees whether I'm sitting there with my eyes closed, they would stop requesting the food. But as soon as my eyes are open, they would start requesting again because they understood 'now she can see me and she can see what I'm doing here, so it's actually meaningful what I'm doing'.

Narrator: Juliane Kaminski explains how puppy dog eyes are not just a figment of our imagination.

Juliane Kaminski: My name is Juliane Kaminski. I'm a reader in comparative psychology at the University of Portsmouth. My original interest was really the evolution of human cognition. So basically how come we are the ones with these large brains and humans are the ones that kind of form their environment in ways that other animals don't? How come humans have developed technology, but we don't necessarily see chimpanzee technology, for example?

Narrator: Dr Juliane Kaminski's exploration of the animal mind has taken her around the world for her studies. She's worked with our closest living relatives, chimps, as well as birds and nowadays domestic dogs. Her curiosity has always been driven by a desire to compare our human experience with that of our furry friends.

Juliane Kaminski: Basically, my question is, how do animals understand the world around them? Do they understand it in similar ways to us, or is it very different? So can they, for example, solve problems flexibly? And that's also when I started working with domestic dogs. My undergraduate degree is in biology, so I was always interested in animal behaviour in particular. So I was interested in animals, how they behave, how they see the world. And then I started working at a research institute which was focused on animal psychology. So they were interested in the evolution of human psychology or the evolution of human cognition. But in order to approach that question, I started looking at animals. So in some sense, course, humans are animals too.

Narrator: Juliane and her colleagues work in the psychology department here at the University of Portsmouth. In her role as director of the Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, she worked with colleagues who are all exploring topics about cognition. She explained what she means by cognition in this sense and how it seems to set humans and animals apart most clearly.

Juliane Kaminski: We can kind of use our brains and cognitive abilities to find solutions to these problems. And this is true for, in some sense, problems in the non-living world. So we call that physical cognition, so the understanding about numbers and the weight of objects and the other features of objects. But it's also very true, and that's in some sense is the aspect I'm even more interested in our social cognition, so how we understand each other. And there's one feature in our social cognition that fascinates me because we think, to some extent, it might be unique to humans, and that is our ability to make inferences about other minds. So this is a very common thing that we do when we interact with each other. We constantly think about what the other one is thinking, and we are very often making very successful predictions about other knowledge, about other desires, about other beliefs. So in some sense, I know that you don't know what I did yesterday because I didn't tell you. OK. But the fact that you know that so that you know that you don't know means you kind of made an inference about my knowledge and you made that based on your experience and on what we shared with each other. And that sounds trivial to us humans because we do it all the time, it's a constant aspect of our social interaction, making these kinds of social inferences. But we are not yet sure to what extent this is unique to our species or whether we can see that in other species as well. And what it really means is that we appreciate the fact that the other individual is different from us with a different understanding of the world and with different knowledge of the world. And in humans, it does develop actually quite late. So it develops around three, three and a half years of age. And before that age, even children can really make mistakes about this. So they sometimes make the assumption that everyone knows everything, for example, because they don't yet distinguish between you and me and your knowledge and my knowledge and your knowledge can be different from my knowledge. But interestingly, around that age, when children start to realise that your knowledge can be different from mine, that's also the age when children start to lie because they suddenly understand the other one can be manipulated.

Narrator: This led to the core question that still drives Juliane's latest work.

Juliane Kaminski: And I'm really interested in the question of whether or not animals can make this distinction. So do animals have what we call a theory of mind? This is the kind of name we have invented for this. We call it a theory of mind. Do animals have a theory of mind? Can chimpanzees understand what others know or do not know? Can they make that distinction?

Narrator: Juliane and her colleagues got creative in designing problem-solving scenarios that would allow them to test and explore the extent of the animal's experience. By recording how an animal behaves in a designed problem-solving scenario, usually motivated by some tasty food, Juliane is able to infer certain things about their understanding. She started by exploring this in chimpanzees.

Juliane Kaminski: In this job, you have to be very creative because we are, of course, dealing with nonverbal creatures so animals that can't talk to us and explain to us how they see the world. So we kind of have to make inferences based on their behaviour or the choices that they make. So I was really interested in the question of whether chimpanzees, for example, understand anything about other's attention. And I wanted to know whether their behaviour would change depending on my attention state so whether I was actually looking or not. So I would sometimes sit in front of them with my eyes open and my body and my face directed at them. And sometimes I would sit opposite them with my body oriented away or my eyes closed, etc, etc. And it turned out it really is. So for chimpanzees, whether I'm sitting there with my eyes closed, they would stop requesting the food. But as soon as my eyes are open, they would start requesting again because they understood. Now she can see me and she can see what I'm doing here. So it's actually meaningful what I'm doing.

Narrator: Juliane works with chimps rescued from the bushmeat trade. They live in a sanctuary in Uganda and she's known some of them for 15 years. After a while, someone special a little closer to home sparked her curiosity and provoked a whole new set of questions for Juliane and her team.

Juliane Kaminski: The work with the dogs was based on an observation I made with my own dog. So the study that I explained before where we were interested in whether or not chimpanzees pay attention to others attention, I noticed that my dog that I had at that time would, of course, always steal food when no one is looking. And this is a very common observation that many dog owners are very familiar with, that 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. So I thought, okay, so yes, we can see all this in chimpanzees, but I'm just absolutely sure that my dog is going to do the same thing and is also very attentive to these things.

Narrator: Naturally, this got the researchers' tongues wagging and a controlled lab study followed, this time to explore attention in domestic dogs.

Juliane Kaminski: What we basically did is we had a piece of food that we put on the ground and we told the dog not to take it. And then a person would sit on a chair in the corner of the room and either observe the dogs or with her eyes open and very attentive, or she would close her eyes or she would turn around. And it turned out that the dogs are extremely sensitive to the person's attention in the room and they would only steer the food if she is not attentive. So if her eyes are closed or she's turned around, but if the eyes are open and she is attentive, they wouldn't steal. So that was basically my first dog study that got me then really interested in exploring this further with dogs.

Narrator: Nowadays, the research is organised so that ordinary family dog participants can be dropped off whilst owners run errands. Or owners can stay and observe their dog making their contribution to the future of science. Puzzles and games are engineered for the animals and their actions observed and recorded on video. As a cockapoo owner myself, I had to ask her which was her favourite breed to work with.

Juliane Kaminski: Whenever we start a new question, then we are kind of – we don't exclude any dog. So we are as open as we can be, obviously. And then breed is hardly ever a question that we really focus on. But then once we explore certain questions a bit more, then we take breed into account. And it becomes really an interesting question of whether there might be breed differences. But so far, when it comes to cognition, so dogs understanding of their environment, their social environment or their non-social environment, we don't see major breeds differences. We think that all of these claims, like, I don't know, the poodle is the smartest breed ever. I don't know where those claims come from. I think partly they are being created by breeders who want to sell their breed. So, because in our work we don't see major breed differences.

Narrator: There was one observation in this research that led to a particularly big breakthrough in exploring how humans and domestic dogs relate. But it raised even more questions.

Juliane Kaminski: When it comes to, like in my work, comparing dogs and chimpanzees, for example, suddenly it turned out that there was something that dogs were doing that chimpanzees couldn't do. And that really got me very interested in dogs as a model. And that's a very simple task and again, something that for us humans is trivial, something that we do all the time. And it has to do with how we communicate with each other.

Juliane Kaminski: So there's a certain gesture that we use to share things that happen in the environment and the gesture that we use as a pointing gesture. So we tend to point things out for others. So we kind of point at something and then maybe we say to another person, 'oh, look, there's something up there'. OK, so the pointing gesture is meant to share things and to inform others about something that is going on in the environment. At the beginning of my research career, it turned out that chimpanzees, even though they are our closest living relatives, don't seem to be very good in understanding pointing. So if you, let's say, put two cups in front of a chimpanzee and one cup has food and the other cup is empty and the chimpanzee doesn't know where the food is, but you pointed out – so you show them the food. So you point at the cup that has the food. Chimpanzees don't really use that information. They basically keep choosing randomly between those two cups, even though you pointed at them and I said, my dog can do that. I'm absolutely sure that my dog can do this. So we tried that in the lab and together with other colleagues then could really show systematically that domestic dogs are really good in using all these communicative gestures coming from humans, especially pointing but also looking. All these kinds of, as we call them, directional cues, the kind of communicative cues that are intended to direct the attention of the other individual in a certain direction. And then I thought it could be that this is really the result of dogs living with us for such a long time. So it could be that this is really an adaptation to life with humans, that dogs have kind of evolved this ability to read our communicative cues in ways that not even our closest living relative can.

Narrator: This led Juliane to build upon the work of other scientists by turning to the closest living relatives of dogs. Noting that wolves do not follow pointing gestures, she concluded that an evolutionary life of domestication really had caused domestic dogs to adapt to some of our human signals.

Juliane Kaminski: Even wolves that have been raised by humans, so have been raised in a human environment as if they were dogs still don't follow the communicative gestures coming from humans to the same extent that dogs do. And so we then asked another question, which was, OK, so how about puppies like really young dogs? Do they already follow these gestures or does it need to be learnt during their lifetime? We found that six-week-old puppies already follow human pointing gestures and these kinds of communicative cues. So six-week-old puppies who are not yet in a human environment, who are still with their mother, not yet involved in any training or anything.

Narrator: So if domestic dogs can follow pointing and understand our human cues, how far does their ability to communicate and interpret go? The world is full of examples of this happening successfully every day, and it seems we're never at a loss to interpret the intentions of our canine companions. From those big brown eyes by the biscuit cupboard to the beseeching gaze of walk time. Just how do they do it?

Juliane Kaminski: So one area that we got really interested in is to also look at other communicative interactions. So we, for example, got really interested in dogs' facial expressions and whether or not dogs would show certain facial expressions only when communicating with humans maybe. Or would they use their facial expressions differently depending on the attentional state of the human? So all of those were then questions we were really interested in. Basically, moving into a new area of communication, which facial expression is, and try and see if this effect of domestication on dogs might be visible in other areas as well.

Juliane Kaminski: One thing that got me really excited is that we could see that dogs would move their faces more, so show more expression, more facial movement when a person was looking at them. But I think the most interesting result and something that I'm particularly interested in at the moment is something that we saw, which is that there is a certain facial movement that dogs produce, which is an eyebrow movement. And this eyebrow movement seems to be very attractive for people. So we could show that dogs that produce that eyebrow movement more often were re-homed from a shelter quicker than dogs that produce that eyebrow movement not so often. And any other behaviours that the dogs in this shelter environment showed, didn't have the same effect. It was just this eyebrow movement that people seem to unconsciously find so attractive that they had to take that dog home. So we were interested to see whether this actually meant that domestication might have really shaped the dog's face to some extent.

Narrator: If you're looking askance across the room at Rufus now, it's not that you're being intentionally manipulated to head out for walkies. Turns out it's a case of anatomy.

Juliane Kaminski: So we compared the facial anatomy of dogs and the facial anatomy of wolves to see if there are any differences between the two species. And it turns out that their muscle anatomy, so the muscles in their faces, in dogs and wolves are identical. And the only difference is a muscle around the eyes, which dogs have, but which we cannot find in wolves. And that's the muscle that produces this eyebrow movement that humans find so attractive. And it's this typical puppy dog eye movement that we can't resist.

Narrator: Exploring this in shelters across the UK, Juliane's colleagues would film a dog sitting in its room waiting for adoption and then as a stranger approached. They were able to see how various behaviours changed when humans were interacting with the dogs. Guess which signature move got the thumbs up for happily ever after.

Juliane Kaminski: So we looked at all their behaviours, like how often they would wag their tail, how much they would bark, how often they would approach the human, but also how much they would move their faces and what kind of facial movements they produced. And then we also asked the shelter to tell us when the dog was adopted. So that means we had two pieces of data. We had the behaviour of the dog when a stranger approaches and we had the number of days that the dog had to wait in a shelter to be adopted. And we wanted to see whether there is a relationship between those two variables. And the only relationship we found was between the waiting times, so waiting for adoption and this eyebrow movement. And it was that the more the dog moved the eyebrow, the fewer days they had to wait to be adopted.

Narrator: The team has also begun to look at another question. How does the facial structure of different breed of dogs vary in relation to this muscle? What they've found so far merits deeper investigation.

Juliane Kaminski: It turns out that there was one dog that didn't have the muscle or which looked more like the wolves and less like the other dogs, and that dog was a husky. And even though this is only one dog and we can't really make large claims if we don't have a larger sample, it is an interesting finding because huskies are considered to be a genetically older breed, meaning they are more closely related to the wolf than other more modern breeds like the Labrador or the Beagle or the Poodle or any of those breeds.

Narrator: Juliane is passionate about her research and the clues it's giving us to how the animal mind differs and sometimes even show similarities to humans.

Juliane Kaminski: I think I'm in a very, very privileged position that I was able to turn something that I really, really love into a job. So, I mean, I don't think that many people are in the position that I am in and I'm really, really happy about that. For me personally, it is the welfare aspect that I think and for me personally comes up most often where I think, OK, so we are not that different to other animals. So why would we treat them so differently?

Narrator: So how can we begin to use this knowledge of the so-called puppy dog eye muscle?

Juliane Kaminski: Well, I think there are two pieces of information in here which are important. So I think this is – I think it's important potentially for shelters to know this so that there are these unconscious cues going on and, kind of, potentially manipulating people when they are adopting dogs. So for this specific finding, I think it's important for shelters to keep that in mind. Meaning that you have to, kind of, I think it helps to inform people that unconscious things might be going on and they should make a conscious decision about which dog to pick. Because we don't think at the moment that means the dogs are in any way nicer or friendly or anything. It's something that works unconsciously on us, but it's not necessarily representative for the real personality of the dog. So I think for shelters, this finding is important to keep in mind so that they kind of advertise their dogs differently in case they don't show this movement a lot. But in more broader perspective, I think when it comes to understanding dogs and understanding dog cognition and understanding all these things, I think it's very important for our relationship with dogs and also for animal welfare and all these kinds of decisions, because we sometimes, I think, tend to overestimate what dogs can and cannot understand. And that brings a problem because if we overestimate their understanding of things, we might put them in a really difficult position where suddenly we expect certain choices of them, which they simply cannot make because they cannot cognitively process this. But it can also prevent us from underestimating them. So we've shown quite a few very fascinating and cognitively interesting things that dogs can actually do. So we should also not underestimate them and underestimate how enriched their environment needs to be, for example, for them to really enjoy life.

Narrator: Next time on Life Solved:

Alex Ford: It was quite a confusing picture because these are parasites and some of these parasites we later found out, had the ability to change the sex of a male to a female.

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Narrator: Our new magazine, Solve, follows University of Portsmouth research when it's put into practice. It's full of news and stories on our world-leading advances and the changes these are making to lives and futures across the world. Just go to

Narrator: And don't forget, you can share this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved. I'm John Worsey. Thanks for listening.

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