Updated: Mar 18, 2019
After talking to a new dog owner friend a couple weeks ago, I realised most people haven't come across the idea of the importance of laughter and facial expressions when training, so I thought I would write a bit about it and try to summarise some scientific studies to back up my opinion!
When you think about using positive reinforcement when training your dog, you usually are thinking about:
It is our way of telling them 'yes, good job, keep doing that, that is what I want'!
By marking the behaviour that they are giving us in a positive way, your dog is a lot more likely to offer that behaviour again. Usually we communicate that by saying 'YES' or clicking a clicker at the exact moment they are giving us what we want. For example, 'sit'. As soon as their butt hits the ground, we mark it and give them a treat, praise, toy or a combination depending on what your dog responds to best.
However dogs are much smarter than only listening to that marker word or a click. They can read us like a book, especially having lived next to us for thousands of years. Our body language, our tone of voice, our demeanor, and our mood, are all indicators as to what we might be thinking and feeling, and what we might be trying to communicate to them.
Many people say "oh my dog knows exactly what I am thinking" or "He can tell when I am sad and comes to give me love" or something to that effect. From a scientific standpoint, he probably does know what you are thinking and feeling! Mans best friend didn't become that overnight. It is through generations of living and working alongside us that the needed to adapt to understand us socially. Not only do they need to understand their fellow canine communication ways, but also ours too.
Through my years of training Assistance Dogs for physically disabled clients, I have always been VERY aware that my facial expressions and positive tone can have a huge impact when training. A lot of clients do not have the physical ability to throw a toy, give a treat or a pat on the head when their dog does something right. We make sure that during training, we are very animated with our tone of voice and big smiles to help in positive reinforcement practices, and also keep a very neutral expression when we are ignoring unwanted behaviours. It works an absolute treat. I see first hand how laughing when I shouldn't, has a negative impact on the dogs training progress.
I wanted to tell you about a few scientific studies that have been done in the last 5 years that shows that we are communicating with our dogs through our facial expressions and laughter. This can massively help in our training of dogs by giving them a bigger, more animated positive response when they are doing what we want, but also can reinforce unwanted behaviour if used in that moment.
In various studies involving fMRI's on humans and dogs, it was proved that dogs respond similarly to facial expressions as we humans do. The brain activity in both humans and dogs were remarkably similar when shown pictures of different human facial expressions; the part of the brain that commands social understanding.
A group of scientists from a University in Mexico studied how the brains of dogs responded to happy, sad, angry and neutral faces and summarised in an unpublished paper (you can access it here):
"It is possible that happy human faces not only served as rewarding stimuli for dogs, but also represented meaningful stimuli, consistent with the importance of emotions to dogs, a social species."
A smiling human face elicited a more positive response from the canine brain, while an angry or sad one elicited a negative response.
Another study saw scientists playing many different sounds to a number of dogs in an fMRI scanner to see what their reaction was. They were played human sounds, dog sounds, and sounds made by inanimate objects.
The scientists could summarise from their findings that, like humans, dogs have a special area of their brain (and in a similar location to us) that reads and responds more to human and canines sounds than meaningless sounds, and that they can distinguish between positive human sounds and negative ones.
Dogs are able to tell that a human cry is different from a laugh; that laughter is a positive sound.
Smiling and laughter are really strong positive reinforcers for dogs. They are true comedians at heart, and thrive off of your positive attention.
Now I am not saying to never smile or laugh at your dog, but from a training point of view, make sure you are laughing at only what you want to encourage. Laughing at bad behaviour, no matter how cute, will act as a social reward and they are more likely to carry on with that behaviour and repeat it later.
Next time you are interacting with your dog, especially when training, see if you can notice a difference in their response when you laugh at them:)
For further reading, here is another study done from 2014/15 about dogs reading human facial expressions. So fascinating!
And here is an article from the Smithsonian that summarises all this in a much more scientific way than I can!