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How dogs recognize a photo of your face by looking into your eyes

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Your dog can recognize your photo by tracking or looking at your eyes from a variety of other images. Dogs see and recognize familiar faces in images. And dogs recognize familiar faces from images, says new research.

Dogs familiar with you can recognize your eyes and other facial features from pictures, not just by scent, according to the new study, "How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study," published on December 5, 2013 in the journal Animal Cognition. Humans have specific brain mechanisms involved in face processing, which focuses attention to faces and recognizes the identity of faces remarkably quickly and accurately. But how do dogs recognize your face from other images? The answer is eye movement tracking.

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, this was the first study, where facial recognition of dogs was investigated with eye movement tracking, reports a December 18, 2013 news release, "Dogs recognize familiar faces from images."

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?

Facial recognition is an important skill for humans and other social animals. However, the face recognition mechanisms of dogs are weakly understood. Professor Vainio's research group from the University of Helsinki studied how dogs look at facial images by using eye movement tracking. The results show that dogs are able to recognize faces in the pictures; dogs focus their attention especially on the eye area and look at familiar faces more often than strange ones. You can also read the abstract of a study published in March 2012, "Dogs do look at images: eye tracking in canine cognition research" also appearing in the journal, Animal Cognition.

Main focus on spontaneous behavior of dogs

Typically animals' ability to discriminate different individuals has been studied by training the animals to discriminate photographs of familiar and strange individuals. "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, according to the December 18, 2013 news release, "Dogs recognize familiar faces from images."

Dogs' eye movements were measured while they watched facial images of familiar humans and dogs, for example, a 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.

Dogs preferred faces of familiar conspecifics

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.

Dogs fixed their gaze more often on familiar faces and eyes rather than strange ones, for example, dogs scanned familiar faces more thoroughly. In addition, part of the images was presented in inverted forms, for example, upside-down. The inverted faces were presented because their physical properties correspond to normal upright facial images, for example the same colors, contrasts, shapes.

It's known that the human brain process upside-down images in a different way than normal facial images. So far, it had not been studied how dogs gaze at inverted or familiar faces.

Dogs viewed upright faces as long as inverted faces, but they gazed more at the eye area of upright faces, just like humans

This study shows that the gazing behavior of dogs is not only following the physical properties of images, but also the information presented in the image and its semantic meaning. Dogs are able to see faces in the images and they differentiate familiar and strange faces from each other. These results indicate that dogs might have facial recognition skills, similar to humans.

Professor Outi Vainio's research group is based at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in the University of Helsinki. The group's research is focused on phenomenon related to dog cognition. The research of the group is supported by the Academy of Finland and Emil Aaltonen foundation.

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