The dog has evolved in such a way that it’s auditory and olfactory senses are better than its eyesight and the brain’s ability to interpret visual input. It relies more on its nose than it does its eyes. I’ve always thought that and a study by researchers at the Eotovos Lorand University in Budapest appears to confirm it. They MRI brain-scanned 20 dogs and 30 people in laboratories in Hungary and Mexico. The canine and human participants were shown videos of human and dog faces and also the backs of the heads of dogs and humans. They wanted to see whether there was increased brain activity when they saw these objects.
The visual cortex of the human brain burst interactivity when they saw human faces. However, when the dogs were shown the same images of faces their brains were no more active than when they were shown the back of heads. The study has been published in The Journal of Neuroscience and it tells us that dogs’ brains do not have the capacity to read faces as the brains of humans do. It appears that the dog does not consider the human face to be of the same status as humans consider it. A previous study concluded that 80% of dogs could not discriminate between the owners face and that of a stranger.
Attila Andics, a researcher on the study, believes that dogs have learnt to care about human faces by living in the human world. However, they don’t have a specialised “face recognition” brain region to execute this desire. Clearly, though, some dogs do recognise their owners and other people. One of those is the Times journalist Kevin Maher. He is convinced that his dog Elsa recognises his face because of years of interaction with her.
Perhaps his dog has learned this and overcome the “deficiencies” of her brain in this regard. It is a hurdle for dogs to overcome but they have adapted. Dogs are good at making eye contact and reading human emotions. As Mr Andics said, “the amazing thing to me is that they are able to learn to pay attention to the face without having the specialised brain machinery”.
Comment: it begs the question as to whether domestic cats can recognise faces. My cat recognises me when I come back after buying the paper. He meets me in the street and from a distance he recognises me. But he may recognise me for a number of reasons other than recognising my face. One reason is that I do the same thing every morning so we have a routine. One thing is for sure: he sniffs me and cats sniff their owners all the time. It’s an olfactory recognition process. For them it is confirmation that they’re interacting with the person that they think they’re interacting with. This points to a slight difficulty in recognising us visually. Of the three senses, sight, sound and smell, the domestic cat most acutely detects smells and sounds over visual images but their eyesight is reasonable and probably better than ours in twilight.