There are few bigger joys in life than seeing your dog jump around with happiness when you greet them after a long day but turns out, dogs are as excited about the back of your head as the front.
A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that dog brains do not prefer faces. Even though they gaze into humans’ eyes and can make your heart explode with their puppy eyes, they aren’t really focusing on your face.
Hungarian scientists have learned through MRI scans of humans and dogs watching videos of both humans and dogs that unlike humans, dogs do not have a specialised brain region that identifies or lights up when they see a face. However, both humans and dogs have an area in their brain that lights up when they see someone from their own species.
It’s not like dogs do not notice faces at all; it’s just that they also pay attention to other kinds of information such as our voice and body language. In contrast, humans value what they see the most.
“Faces are central to human visual communication …and human brains are also specialized for faces,” said co-author Attila Andics, an animal behaviour researcher at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, to NBC.
The study was conducted across two labs—one in Hungary and another in Mexico. The Hungary lab scanned only humans, while the Mexico lab took on the dogs and human participants. To ensure the dogs already had familiarity with human faces, the pooches recruited were all family dogs. In total, the researchers studied 30 humans and 20 dogs.
When the researchers analysed the brain scans, it was found that the human brain was far more active when a human face was shown compared to the back of a head. It was also noticed that human brains were more active when a video of a person played rather than one of a dog. On the other hand, dogs' brain activity didn’t show any change when they were shown face or the back of a head.
"I think it is amazing that, despite apparently not having a specialized neural machinery to process faces, dogs nevertheless excel at eye contact, following gaze, reading emotions from our face, and they can even recognize their owner by the face," Andics said. "During domestication, dogs adapted to the human social environment, and living with humans they quickly learn that reading facial cues makes sense, just as humans learn to pay attention to little details, of let's say, a phone, without having specialized phone areas in their brain."
Dogs use chemical communication or pheromones much more than humans i.e. chemical signals that have evolved for communication between members of the same species. “We always look at people’s faces, but dogs look at all of us,” said Katherine Houpt, a professor emeritus at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Dogs have other ways of [evaluating] people.”
Experiments have shown that dogs can often identify between generous and selfish people just by their actions. If you’re worried about your dog not loving your face, you can relax because they love all of you [i.e. if they do, of course] and not just your face.
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