About 4% of the nation’s 55 million dogs suffer from separation anxiety. That’s about 2.2 million pooches. When these dogs see their favorite humans, their eyes light up, but is it because they’re recognizing their pals, or something else?
According to a new study published in the journal PeerJ, the answer is yes. Dogs can identify humans’ faces.
Emory University researchers put six dogs in fMRI machines, and showed them movies of human faces, dog faces, and inanimate objects. When the faces of dogs or people appeared, a region in the dogs’ temporal lobes lit up “significantly more” than they did when they saw objects.
“We were focusing on an area of the brain that we know, in primates and humans, responds specifically to faces, to see if dogs have the same thing,” said study senior author Gregory Berns. “And apparently, they do.”
According to the paper, faces are incredibly important stimuli for social animals, as they carry an abundance of information, such as identity, age, sex, emotions, and communicative intentions.
“It’s not too surprising” that dogs can recognize faces, said Berns. “Just by interacting with them, we know that.”
Just about anyone who’s ever owned a dog would presume that his or her furry friend could recognize them. Humans have kept canine companies for longer than 15,000 years, and past studies have suggested that people feel as strongly for their dogs as they might for a human child, and vice-versa.
However, this behavioral evidence has been the limit of scientific knowledge, until now. The researchers wanted to determine if dogs could actually connect to faces, or if they were simply responding based on associations. For example, perhaps dogs were getting excited when they see their humans, because it meant it was time for food or play.
“If that were the case, then we would have expected the response, especially to human faces, to be in reward systems of the brain,” said Berns. “That’s not what we saw. We saw that the response to faces was more in the visual system, which suggests it’s more hardwired or innate — that their brains come that way, already ready to respond to faces.”