Dog Brains Don’t Appear to Pay Special Attention to Faces

Researchers find dog brains show similar levels of activity when shown the back of a dog or person’s head compared to a dog or human face

Dogs sitting near an MRI machine
Researchers studying how dog respond to human and dog faces found no difference in brain activity when domestic dogs were shown the back of a dog or human head compared to a dog or person's face. Enik Kubinyi / Eötvös Loránd University

A new study suggests dogs may find the staring at the backs of their owners’ heads just as stimulating as looking at their faces. Though our four-legged friends appear to be capable of reading human emotions, the new study found dog brains don’t have a specific region that activates when they’re shown a face, reports Nicola Davis for the Guardian.

“It’s amazing dogs do so well when it comes to reading emotions and identify from faces, despite the fact that they seem not to have a brain designed for having a focus on [them],” Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and co-author of the study, tells the Guardian.

In the study, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers presented 20 pet dogs with an array of two-second videos that showed either the front or back of a human or dog head. The dogs were shown the videos while lying still inside an MRI, allowing scientists to spy on their brain activity, reports Laura Sanders for Science News. For comparison, the researchers also showed 30 people the same videos.

Predictably, the human brains showed a flurry of activity in the visual center when shown a face of either a person or a dog and were comparatively subdued when only the back of a head was visible. The brains of the pet dogs, on the other hand, showed no increase in activity when being shown a face compared to the back of a human or dog’s head, per Science News. The differences in dog brain activity that the researchers did observe suggested dogs were more attuned to identifying whether the star of the video was a fellow dog or a person.

"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 tells Jack Guy of CNN. Andics adds that as part of living closely with humans, dogs quickly figure out that it would behoove them to start reading facial cues, “just as humans learn to pay attention to little details, of let's say, a phone, without having specialized phone areas in their brain."

Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London who was not involved in the study, tells the Guardian that the study shows dog’s neural mechanism for recognizing faces differs from that of humans. “The dog face system just goes ‘it’s a dog or a human’ and it doesn’t really care about the faces,” Scott tells the Guardian, adding that dogs may rely more on their senses of smell, hearing and overall body language to know “who their friends are and how they are doing.”

Writing in Science News, Sanders cautions that the results shouldn't be taken to mean that dogs aren’t capable of seeing or caring about faces because the study only measured the animals’ brain responses not their behavior.

Andics tells CNN that his lab will now investigate the specialized cognitive adaptations dogs have developed through living with humans, and conduct comparative tests to see how dog and human brains process visual categories including body parts, other species and everyday objects.

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