We are not just smiley-face abstractions to our faithful companion’s eyes, it turns out. I knew for sure there was something to this, and it’s nice to see research confirm it.
A few years ago, we had this amazing dog Cookie (RIP). When I would visit home after being away for months, she would recognize me from a distance and whine in happiness, greeting me with kind licks to the hand and face. The reaction would always occur right after seeing me for a few seconds.
It would’ve been really mean if I wore a bag over my head instead and burst into the room saying, “Hey, hey hey!” (In a Krusty voice)
I’m sure she would’ve devoured my hand in fierce rage and instinct.
Scientists have shown just how much dogs rely on seeing their owners faces in order to recognise them.
The researchers also measured how much dogs prefer to gaze at and follow their owners, rather than a stranger.
In the journal Animal Behaviour, the team described how dogs had difficultly recognising their human “best friend” when the person had their face covered.
The study sheds more light on how thousands of years of domestication has affected the behaviour of canines.
This relates to how dogs “prefer” the company of their owners.
Dr Mongillo’s team invented an experiment to measure this.
“We had the dog in an empty room and we instructed the owner and another person – someone unfamiliar to the dog – to walk across the room several times,” the scientist explained.
“The people walked in opposite directions, so they crossed many times in front of the dog and we measured how long the dog looked at one person versus another.”
The research team then instructed the two people to leave the room via two different doors and allowed the dog to approach one of the doors.
“Most of the dogs gazed at their owners for most of the time and then chose to wait by the owner’s door,” said Dr Mongillo.
In the second part of the study, the scientists asked the people to cover their faces; the human volunteers then walked across the room with bags over their heads.
During this phase of the experiment, the dogs were much less attentive to their owners. This revealed just how much the animals relied on human faces for recognition.
Wild dogs rely on body signals and on cues from other animals in their social groups, but studies including this one suggest that domestic dogs are so attuned to human social groups that they are even able to recognise some human facial expressions.