Who Are You? Dogs Recognize Their Owners by Their Faces

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October 26, 2010
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When you pick your dog up from daycare or come home, does she start jumping up and down or barking because she’s excited you’re home? Does she start her happy dance before she sees you?

A new study in the journal Animal Behaviour shows that dogs rely on sight to recognize their owners. You’d think it was scent but it seems sight is their primary sense when it comes to finding us and following us.

The study measured how long and often dogs gaze at their owners and strangers through a series of experiments. Paolo Mongillo, from the University of Padua in Italy, conducted the study and may have shed some light on how decades and decades of domestication may have changed our canine buddies from using their noses to their eyes when it comes to bonding with us.

The scientists had an empty room where two people would walk back and forth. One of the people’s dogs would be watching as the owner and the stranger crossed paths several times and then when exiting the room there were two separate doors. The dogs gazed at their owners most of the time and then when they were allowed to walk into the room, they often sat by the door their owner used to exit.

As pet owners, we all know that our dogs would favor us but it had never been measured before and gave some insight as to how dogs give preferential attention to their owners. But what happens if the dogs can’t see our faces? Will they recognize our “swagger?” According to the study, when covering the heads of the owner and the stranger, the dogs were less attentive to their owners. This revealed just how much dogs rely on sight to find their owners.

What’s this mean?

Wild, feral dogs rely on body language from each other and other animals in social groups but domesticated dogs are more tuned into human social groups and have learned to read faces and use this skill more than their relatives. “This is very likely to be a by-product of thousands of years of domestication,” said Dr Mongillo.

It would be interesting to see if and how dogs differentiate twins and if they would have divided their attention more evenly or would’ve tried to sniff them as they walked back and forth in the room.

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