October 23, 2010
Dogs Capable Of Facial Recognition
A new study has shed more light on how thousands of years of domestication has affected canine behavior, and researchers show just how much dogs rely on seeing their owners' faces in order to recognize them.
The researchers also studied dogs to see how much they stare at and follow their owners, rather than a stranger.
The study, published in the journal Animal Behavior, showed that dogs had difficulty recognizing their owner when the person had their face covered up.
Paolo Mongillo from the University of Padua in Italy, who led the study, explained that, although many studies have been done on how dogs interact with humans, nobody had yet investigated how man's best friend focused on one person in preference to another.
Mongillo and his colleagues invented their own 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," he 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 team then had the two people leave the room via two separate doors and allowed the dog to approach one of the doors.
Through most of the experiment the dogs gazed at their owners most of the time and then "chose to wait by the owner's door," Dr Mongillo said.
The result was what the researchers expected would happen but it is something that has never been measured before. "If you imagine a dog in a real setting in a city or anywhere in the middle of a crowd or a crowded space, you can see how the animal must have adapted to give preferential attention to its owner," Dr Mongillo told BBC.
The team then asked people to cover their faces and then had them walk across the room with bags over their heads. During this phase of the study, the dogs were much less attentive to their owners, revealing just how much the animals relied on human faces for recognition.
"This is very likely to be a by-product of thousands of years of domestication," said Dr Mongillo.
Genetic testing between dogs and their wolf ancestors suggest that canines were first domesticated between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago.
In the same study, the researchers investigated how aging also affects dogs' attention.
They discovered that dogs seven years and older were less able to focus on their human companions and were also less likely to choose the owner's door. ""
"There have been studies to show that dog aging is similar to human aging in terms of cognitive impairment," Dr Mongillo told BBC.
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