Can Dogs Recognize Our Faces?

New facial recognition brain imaging study suggests yes.

Posted Mar 06, 2016

Five Border Collies, a Labrador Retriever, and a Golden Retriever walk into a brain imaging scanner.

Yes, this actually happened. In a new brain imaging study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers examined the brain activity of seven dogs using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while showing them faces.

PLOS One
Source: PLOS One

Functional MRI is a non-invasive magnet-based technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Seven dogs were trained to relax on a chin rest inside the MRI scanner so that they could comfortably stay in “Sphinx” pose (the same Sphinx pose you do in yoga). The dogs were shown photos of 50 different people and 50 everyday objects while researchers measured changes in blood flow in their brain.

Researchers found that photos of people activated areas of dogs' temporal lobe, an area in the brain associated with facial recognition and perception. The study also found brain regions associated with rewards and emotions (caudate and thalamus, respectively) were more active when the dogs saw faces of people, but not objects.

PLOS One
Source: PLOS One

These results are consistent with what we know about facial recognition in humans and other animals. In humans, the primary area of the brain correlated with facial recognition is a section of the temporal lobe. This is same brain region for facial recognition in macaque monkeys and sheep.

This new study adds to the growing science behind how dogs are uniquely social animals and can establish communication and bonds with people in ways that other animals have not. Dogs are the only members in the Canidae family that can recognize faces of people without training. Dogs can tell when we are smiling or not and are able to notice differences between two faces, something that even primates like Japanese monkeys aren't able to do. Dogs also spend more time examining new faces compared to familiar faces.

Dogs are better able to detect human facial cues than even chimpanzees. In fact, dogs are more likely to ask for food from people with whom they are able to establish eye contact with and play fetch with humans who are more open and attentive via body language.

Dogs are so attuned to facial cues of people that in studies when dogs are not able to solve tasks, dogs will look to people's faces for clues (whereas wolves do not).

Copyright © 2016 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC