What do dogs see when they look at our faces? Science has the answer

Rob Waugh
·2-min read
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What do dogs see when they look at our faces? (Getty)

Dogs can be very good at making eye contact, and even at reading emotions – but what happens when a dog looks at your face?

It’s very different from what happens when a human looks at you, researchers have discovered, after scanning dog and human brains.

Dogs don’t focus on faces, like people do – instead, they rely on other bodily signals to communicate, researchers suggest

Lead researcher Attila Andics, who led the study at Eotvos Lorand university in Budapest, told AFP: “The brain imaging findings in the study suggest that faces may be of crucial importance to humans and probably other primates, but not to all mammals, for example not for dogs.

"The two species differ in their visual communication and this is reflected in their brains.”

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Humans possess a dedicated neural network for face processing, the researchers say.

But dogs are very different, seeming to show little preference for faces (although the researchers saw a preference for dogs over humans).

Researchers tested 20 dogs and 30 humans in the same functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment.

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Dogs and humans viewed short movies of dog and human faces and, for comparison, of dog and human back-of-the-heads.

Andics said, "Earlier, our research group already showed a similar correspondence between dog and human brains for voice processing.

“We now see that species-sensitivity is an important organising principle in the mammalian brain for processing social stimuli, in both the auditory and the visual modality.”

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Regarding differences, the study found no brain areas in dogs that encode whether the viewed image is a face or a back-of-the-head – whereas in humans this is a crucial distinction.

For dogs, it’s much more important to know whether the creature they are looking at is a dog or a human.

Andics said: "A preference analysis of the brain response patterns confirmed that in dogs, conspecific-preference is primary over face-preference and in humans, face-preference is primary over conspecific-preference.

“This is an essential difference. It demonstrates that there can be substantial dissimilarities in cortical specialization for face perception across mammals.”

Nóra Bunford, who also worked on the study, said: “Actually, these findings also shed new light on previous dog fMRI studies claiming to have found 'face areas': we now think that the stronger activity to dog faces in those studies indicated dog-preferring rather than face-preferring brain areas.”

The researchers said the study could help us understand how human brains process social information.

Andisc says: "Together, the similarities in species-sensitivity and the dissimilarities in face-sensitivity suggest both functional analogies and differences in the organizing principles of visuo-social processing across dogs and humans.”

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