So far, the specialized skill for recognizing facial features holistically has been assumed to be a quality that only humans and possibly primates possess. Although it’s well known that faces and eye contact play an important role in the communication between dogs and humans, the study described here is the first in which facial recognition of dogs was investigated with eye movement tracking. The work was reported in the December 2013 issue of Animal Cognition. Typically, animals’ ability to discriminate between different individuals has been studied by training the animals to discriminate between photographs of familiar and strange individuals. The researchers, led by Professor Outi Vainio at the University of Helsinki, tested dogs’ spontaneous behavior towards images – if the dogs are not trained to recognize faces, are they able to see faces in the images and do they naturally look at familiar and strange faces differently? “Dogs were trained to lie still during the image presentation and to perform the task independently. Dogs seemed to experience the task rewarding, because they were very eager to participate,” says Professor Vainio. Dogs’ eye movements were measured while they watched facial images of familiar humans and dogs (e.g., dog’s owner and another dog from the same family) being displayed on the computer screen. As a comparison, the dogs were shown facial images from dogs and humans that the dogs had never met. The results indicate that dogs were able to perceive faces in the images. Dogs looked at images of dogs longer than images of humans, regardless of the familiarity of the faces presented in the images. This corresponds to a previous study by Professor Vainio’s research group, where it was found that dogs prefer viewing conspecific faces over human faces.
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