Does Your Dog See You?
Your dog loves to lick your face. But does he see your face? A new study examines a dog’s ability at human face recognition.
Among sighted humans, we place a real emphasis on eye contact. How else do you know if someone is paying attention to you? Your friend turns her body to face you and she looks in your direction. “She is paying attention to me,” you intuitively understand. You know when someone is looking at you. And if you want to engage that person, you instinctively know to look that person in the face – in the eyes, specifically – to continue the interaction.
But we’re people. Do dogs get this? Do the understand what constitutes a human face? They’re keenly aware of the smell of our trousers, and those treats in our back pocket, or that cookie we’ve cleverly tried to conceal in our hand. “Hey, buddy! My eyes are up here!” – do they get that?
Human Face Recognition
Dog behavior researchers in the journal Animal Cognition tackled exactly this question with their study, “Are readers of our face readers of our minds? Dogs show situation-dependent recognition of human’s attention.”
The researchers tried to determine whether or not dogs could detect human attention based on body position and facial cues. The dogs engaged in games of fetch and begging. The humans either faced the dog, or faced away. When facing the dog, humans either made normal eye contact or masked their eyes by use of blindfolds.
The results demonstrated that dogs were indeed able to rely on the orientation of the human’s body and head as well as the visibility of the eyes to determine whether or not the handler was paying attention. In nearly every situation, the dogs would approach the front of the human, even if the human were facing in the other direction.
There were also indications that dogs were sensitive to the visibility of the eyes because they showed increased hesitative behavior when approaching a blindfolded owner, and they also preferred to beg from the person with visible eyes.
The researchers concluded that “dogs are able to rely on the same set of human facial cues for detection of attention, which form the behavioral basis of understanding attention in humans.”
Since so many people love to play in the park with their dog on a nice sunny day, we wonder if wearing sunglasses has an adverse effect on dog training. (We’re talking about humans wearing sunglasses. If you’re thinking about dog sunglasses, you’ve lived in L.A. too long!) Would a dog be less likely to obey commands when the handler is wearing dark sunglasses – similar to the blindfold in the study we referenced above?
If anyone feels like conducting a non-scientific experiment with their own pet, please let us know what you discover, and we’ll happily share the results!