As It Happens

Dogs can read your expression, but study finds they aren't super excited about your face

Dogs aren't biologically attuned to faces in the same way that humans are, according to a new study. But they work hard to read our expressions anyway.

Researchers finds dogs' brains don't respond any differently to faces than to the backs of heads

Dogs aren't hardwired to respond to facial expressions, but they can do it anyway, say Hungarian researchers. (InBetweentheBlinks/Shutterstock)

Transcript

Dogs aren't biologically attuned to faces in the same way that humans are, a new study has found — but scientists say they work hard to read our expressions anyway.

Researchers in Hungary found that dogs simply aren't wired to respond to faces. When shown pictures or videos of faces, their brains simply don't light up the way a human brain does.

In fact, to a dog's brain, it makes no difference whether they're looking us dead in the eyes or at the back of our heads. 

"I wouldn't say that dogs [are] not interested in our face," the study's lead author Attila Andics told As It Happens host Carol Off. "What we say is just that they don't respond to faces stronger than to other kinds of stimuli."

The study was published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Dogs' brains respond most to other dogs 

Andics, who studies adapted animal behaviour at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, says this study is one of the first to make a direct comparison between human and dog brain imaging.

The researchers put 30 humans and 20 dogs into MRI machines and showed them a series of images and videos depicting human faces, the backs of human heads, dog faces, and the backs of dog heads.

The dogs in the study were all longtime family pets who were trained with positive reinforcement to sit still in the MRI machines, Andics assured.

They found that humans' brains were more active when they were shown a face, as opposed to the back of a head, whether it belonged to a dog or a human. Dogs, on the other hand, showed no difference in brain activity.

Dogs' brains light up more when they see other dogs than when they see people. (Dr. Alan Lipkin/Shutterstock)

The findings make perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint, Andics said. 

"Dogs normally typically use many other bodily signals, not only the facial signals. A normal dog-to-dog communication contains many other things like the tail [or] the body posture," he said.

"But for humans, the faces are really central to visual communication."

One thing dogs and humans did have common was a natural response to seeing other members of their own species. Human brains were more active upon seeing people, while dogs brains' responded more to other dogs. 

Still, Andics says there's ample evidence that dogs do recognize and respond to human facial expressions, and can tell different people's faces apart. 

So dog owners should not be disappointed to learn their beloved pooches aren't naturally attuned to their faces, he said. 

"Actually, I think that this research shows that dogs are really cool, because even though they don't have specialized neural machinery to process faces, they are still very good at doing this," he said.

"And this means that they have to learn much more, they have to work much more for this to excel at eye contact, to excel at following our gaze, to excel at reading emotions and recognizing the owner."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms. 

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