To Dogs, the Human Face Is Something Really Unique

March 8, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Dogs trained to lie still in an fMRI machine
Photo credit: Cuaya, Hernandez and Concha

Seven dogs were trained to lie in fMRI scanners to find out.

Although scientists have not figured out exactly how dogs feel about us, they are getting closer. A new study published this week in the journal PLOS One is shedding some light onto how dogs actually see us.

The research has shown that, much like humans, other primates and goats, dogs use specific regions of their brain to process our faces.

“Our study provides evidence that human faces are truly special for dogs, as it involves particular brain activity,” study co-author Dr. Luis Concha, an associate professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Institute of Neurobiology, told The Huffington Post.  “To dogs, the human face is no ordinary thing.”

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To many other species, the human face is not considered anything special — just another object in the environment.

To complete the study, the researchers trained seven dogs (five border collies, one Labrador retriever and one golden retriever) to lie awake and motionless in an fMRI scanner while they were shown a series of photographs: 50 photos of human faces, both male and female unfamiliar to the dogs with neutral expressions, and 50 showing everyday objects.

The results of the fMRI scans showed that whether the dogs were looking at faces or objects, their brains showed activity in the occipital cortex, a region at the rear of the brain that is known to be involved in visual processing.

Interestingly, when the dogs were looking at faces, their brains also showed activity in the frontal lobe and the caudate nucleus — regions associated with communication, emotional expression and memory storage.


This study builds on previous research conducted by Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and author of the 2013 book How Dogs Love Us.

It probably comes as no surprise to most dog owners that your trusted companions recognize your face, and it turns out they may even be able to recognize you in a photograph.  However, the researchers note that even though your dog likes your face, they still prefer to look at other canines than at people.

I feel the same way, puppies!

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