Why Do Dogs’ Eyes Look So Sad?

A fascinating study published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the facial muscles of our canine companions may have evolved to be able to better communicate with humans.

This explains how dogs can tug on human heartstrings by giving people that “adopt me please” look. This study found that domestic dogs’ faces are structured in such a way that complex expressions are possible. This same ability is not found in wolves. 

This suggests that because dogs coevolved with humans over tens of thousands of years, that they developed a special ability to communicate with humans using facial expressions.

This ability involves a particular pair of muscles that frame their eyes, the retractor anguli oculi lateralis muscle (RAOL) and the levator anguli oculi medialis muscles (LAOM) which both open and widen a dog’s eyes making them look droopier and more appealing.

Wolves, who did not coevolve with humans, do not have these muscles. And the most wolf like of the dogs studied, the Siberian Husky, did not have them either.

In a previous study, the authors of the 2019 research showed that humans respond more favorably when dogs use these eye muscles. But we dog owners knew that all along, didn’t we? Who can resist that look than means can I have a cookie?

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By Ellen Britt

Dr. Ellen Britt has loved dogs since she was a child. She is particularly fond of the Northern breeds, especially Alaskan Malamutes. Ellen worked as a PA in Emergency and Occupational Medicine for two decades and holds a doctorate (Ed.D.) in biology.

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