How translating wolf facial expressions could help us understand domesticated dogs

Researchers are deciphering the way these pack animals communicate and it seems that facial expressions, rather than sounds or scents, hold the key. Rosie Mallett investigates the many faces of wolves.

Science Focus – 8 November 2018 -Rosie Mallett

“Whether it’s gobbling up Little Red Riding Hood’s granny or blowing little pigs’ houses down, wolves are traditionally cast as villains and portrayed as scheming, vicious and menacing. Now, thanks to the latest research, this looks set to change. Wolves are getting an image make-over. New studies are adding to a growing body of evidence that paints a very different picture of these animals and gives an intriguing insight into a sophisticated social structure centred around wolf family life. At the root of this is a complex level of communication built partly on facial expressions that reflect a wolf’s feelings. In effect, wolves ‘talk’ by making faces at each other.

Researchers believe wolves may have used these communication skills to build bridges with hunter-gatherer people in an evolutionary journey that ultimately led to the domestic dogs we know and love today. In the first of its kind, research at Durham University is starting to translate this wolf talk and looks set to deliver important lessons about how we interact with our dogs at home and some disturbing news about our designer dog breeds.

“Most people think of wolves as nasty snarling creatures always ready to pounce on us. But this is nonsense,” says Elana Hobkirk of Durham University’s animal behaviour research group. “They are, in fact, sentient animals, capable of joy and friendliness as well as anger.”

Hobkirk has looked at how wolves behave towards each other within the pack by identifying their facial expressions and determining whether they reflect the animals’ underlying emotions. She has compared the results with those from dogs to see whether the domesticated cousins can produce the same range of signals.

This means getting up close and personal with wolves, which can be a problem. A wild wolf will flee as soon as it catches scent of a human, which means you’ll be lucky to get within two miles of it, says Hobkirk. So, to get a good look at her subjects she has focused on captive wolves living in four packs at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust near Reading.

Taken at face value

“Although facial expressions have long been observed in wolves and dogs, this is the first time they’ve been quantified and correlated with their corresponding affective states [forms of motivation such as emotions, moods, attitudes, desires, preferences, intentions and dislikes]. Until now researchers haven’t had the means to do it,” Hobkirk says.

The technique involves filming the facial expressions of the wolves while they interact. The footage is then played back in slow motion so that their facial movements can be entered into a computer programme.

Each individual facial movement is allocated a specific code from the Dog Facial Action Coding System (DogFACS), a tool developed for use in dogs by Portsmouth University. It recognises each movement based on the underlying facial musculature that moves specific landmarks on the wolf’s/dog’s face such as eyes, ears, browridge, muzzle, nose and mouth.

Joy

The wolf pulls the corners of its lips back and drops its jaw. It pushes its ears forward and sometimes may mouth another wolf without biting it.

The results are then correlated with the social context of the interaction to identify the emotions or affective states being expressed by the animal, using body language and outcomes of interactions as guides. “For example, if one wolf snaps at another, and the other wolf suddenly backs away, puts its ears back flat, lowers its head and shows the whites of its eyes, then that reaction is labelled as ‘fear’,” explains Hobkirk. So far the research has revealed that wolves can express at least nine emotions through their faces: anger, anxiety, curiosity, fear, friendliness, happiness, interest, joy and surprise.

Along with other ways of messaging, such as body posture and vocalisations, the wolves use these facial expressions to build bonds between individuals and maintain their hierarchy within the pack. Apart from a few minor variations – one wolf might wrinkle its nose more than another, for example – these expressions are consistent across all the packs Hobkirk has studied. And it seems some wolves are more chatty than others.

“The more subordinate members of the pack are more elaborate in their facial expressions whereas the more dominant members don’t have to make much effort to get the message across. They can just stand there and show who’s boss,” says Hobkirk.

One finding that has stood out from the research is a remarkable similarity with certain interactions used by primates in similar social settings. These include the ‘jaw-drop’, in which a wolf or primate relaxes their lower jaw and pulls back the corners of their lips so it looks like they’re grinning without showing their teeth. It’s an expression both species use to signal playtime and, in wolves, is different to the submissive grin, seen in expressions of ‘friendliness’, where the mouth is shut.

It’s these similarities with primate expressions that have led the Durham group to the theory that wolves’ communication skills may have played a key role in their domestication. Stone-age people and wolves could perhaps ‘talk’ to each other by using facial expressions.

Thousands of years ago, human and wolves may have formed alliances partly because they could interact through a range of signals, which we can still see today, albeit in a diminished from, in our domestic dogs. It seems obvious when you think about how much we rely on people’s expressions to pick up on their meaning.

“It’s natural for us to hone in on people’s faces when we’re talking. Research shows that people who have had a stroke and can’t use their facial expressions as they did before, find it difficult to maintain relationships. As wolves also use facial expressions to communicate, then maybe millennia ago we were able to pick up on that and understand each other,” says Hobkirk.

Fear

Fear is expressed by opening the eyes wide, raising the inner eyebrows, flattening ears back and sometimes also lowering the head.

Domestication is thought to have started at least 15,000 years ago. It’s possible human children may have taken a fancy to wolf pups and stolen them from dens, although some consider this unlikely given the time required to hand-rear wolf pups. Alternatively, wolves may have learnt that hanging around people was a handy way of scavenging food. In the process the humans gained extra protection from these animal allies who would alert them to dangerous intruders.

Whatever happened to bring the two species together, an alliance between human and wolf would have had benefits for both, according to Dr Sean Twiss, who heads the Durham University animal behaviour group.

“The accepted wisdom is that there was a mutual relationship between wolves and humans,” he says. “To enable that you need communication, so a variety of signals that effectively convey the wolf’s affective state to a human would be in its best interest if it is to get an advantage out of the association.” This could have served as a selection pressure as the two species co-evolved.

Lost in translation

So, after millennia of living together, you might expect us to be conversing happily with our canine friends. We know dogs are good at reading their owners’ faces and feelings. But it turns out that ‘man’s best friend’ is somewhat challenged when it comes to conveying emotions, at least via facial signalling. In her research, Hobkirk found only three consistent emotional states were detected in dogs by her model: anger, friendliness and joy.

The problem is dogs don’t have the facial structure to pull faces to the same extent as wolves. Think of a pug – its flat face is a handicap when it comes to communicating.

“Dogs have more of a brachycephalic [shorter, flatter] face; long, flopped ears; long, pendulous lips; and a kind of weird hairdo that can hide their ears and eyes,” explains Hobkirk. “These are all features that can hinder communication. In breeding for looks, we’ve got rid of the more natural morphology that the dog needs.”

Curiosity

With its ears pricked up, the wolf tilts its head and sniffs about.

The problem may have started way back in the history of domestication. Previous research from Portsmouth University suggested that wolves with more puppy-like features may have been preferentially selected by people – and that this selection may continue today. But it seems we’ve gone too far and this has implications, not only for human/dog relationships but also for interactions between dogs. Some may struggle with the ‘language barrier’ and this may explain why certain breeds are more aggressive than others.

The Durham research also found domesticated dogs are twice as vocal as wolves – barking, yelping, whimpering, and growling. The extra noise could be to compensate for the lack of more subtle forms of facial communication – equivalent to the stereotypical Englishman abroad who shouts louder in his own language to try and be understood.

Wolves’ superior communication skills have also been observed at the Wolf Science Centre in Vienna, Austria. Here, assistant professor Friederike Range of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology and colleagues are studying the cognitive abilities of wolves and free-ranging wild dogs living in packs.

“Wolves are very social and dogs are not,” she says. “Wolves share food and cooperate, whereas the dogs don’t want to share, and they don’t reconcile after a conflict. The difference in communication between the wolves and dogs is striking.”

Wolves may also be more perceptive than pet dogs. In a recent study, the Viennese scientists found that dogs and wolves were both capable of finding a morsel of food if a researcher pointed to where it was hidden. But if the researcher just looked at the hiding place, only the wolves were able to follow their gaze to discover the food, explains Range. Dogs may be good at following commands, including pointing, but wolves pay more attention to faces and facial expressions.

Anger

The animal opens its eyes wide, points its ears up and wrinkles its nose while snarling, growling and bearing its teeth. It may also snap its jaw.

Such abilities are doubtless what have earned the wolf its reputation for cunning. But it is the animals’ impulse to live in packs and work together to support and protect each other that draws comparisons with human society. Wolves have a similar social structure to human hunter-gatherers, living in family groups and cooperating to hunt for food and provide for their young. A wolf pack is simply a family and can be as small as a pair of wolves but usually comprises the parents, the current year’s offspring and those from the previous one to two years. A typical pack has about 10 members, although one pack in the USA’s Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, reached 37 members of extended family.

Being in a pack requires a hierarchy in which each wolf knows its place. But aggression within a pack is usually only a small part of a wolf’s life. Far more time is spent playing, says Rick McIntyre who during his 40 years in the US National Park Service, spent over a decade as the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

“Wolves are very affectionate to each other – licking their faces, play-wrestling, jumping up against each other, putting a paw over the shoulder of a companion,” he says and goes on to point out that one dominant male would even pretend to lose at play-fights.

“The biggest and toughest male in the park would have a tussle with a smaller adult or a pup and would run off pretending to be afraid. It would be like a human father playfully wrestling with his son and letting the boy win,” he says. “It’s a good way to bond and build a strong relationship with each other.”

Meanwhile, back in Durham the next stages of the research will look at the interaction between people and dogs. This could lead to a guidebook for how to talk to your dog with breed-specific cue cards included when you buy a dog. For example, if your pug is trying to convey anger or fear, it may use different signals to those of a Labrador or a German shepherd. Regardless, it seems that the best way to understand what your dog is trying to say is to learn to recognize the faces it’s pulling.”

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