What do dogs see when they look at humans? With their wide eyes and steady gazes, it’s easy to anthropomorphize our furry friends and imagine they’re seeing the same things we are — the precious and particular facial features of a trusted companion. However, according to recent research, that’s not entirely accurate. While humans typically take a face-first approach to social interactions, dogs prefer the total body package.
The Kin Consideration
For dogs, seeing and recognizing familiar faces is a subset of the larger kin and mate selection process. In effect, dogs become familiar with their “pack” — human or otherwise — by creating a mental map of key physical characteristics that include “non-facial bodily cues, acoustic or chemical signs,” according to Attila Andics, co-author of the recent study from the Society of Neuroscience.
While research from Andics and his colleagues found that dogs are perfectly capable of recognizing human faces, this information isn’t their top priority. Using fMRI scans, the research team discovered no difference in dogs’ mental activity when looking at human faces or the back of human heads. This suggests that dogs lack the specific face recognition functions found in the brains of humans and other primates. While dogs did show species preferences through greater brain activity when looking at pictures of other dogs compared to humans, they’re simply not built with the same facial framework.
This isn’t to say that your dog doesn’t like your face or doesn’t enjoy gazing into your eyes. Andics notes, “It is amazing that, despite apparently not having a specialized neural machinery to process faces, dogs nevertheless excel at eye contact, following gaze, reading emotions from our face, and they can even recognize their owner by the face.” In fact, research suggests that dogs can differentiate between happy and angry human faces and are capable of recognizing the human smile — often a sign of aggression in other species — as a positive social cue in human/canine interactions. In other words, dogs have evolved their ability to recognize and react to human faces and emotions as part of people-focused packs.
The Vision Variance
Part of the disconnect between dog and human facial recognition stems from differing volumes of light receptors known as “cones” and “rods”. Compared with canine eyes, human eyes have a higher abundance of cone receptors, which are used to distinguish colors. This allows us to detect three distinct colors — red, green and blue — along with variations and combinations of these colors. Lower cone volumes in dogs’ eyes mean they can only see two colors, although the jury is out on exactly which ones are part of the canine color experience.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the volume of rods, canine vision vastly outpaces that of humans, allowing our four-legged friends to see much better in the dark. Dogs also have an extra layer of eye tissue known as the “tapetum lucidum,” which further enhances light reflection into the retina. The result is a visual system that’s designed to see shapes in any light condition but isn’t well suited to recognizing the specifics and subtleties of human facial features.
The Interspecies Intersection
If dogs can recognize human faces but don’t prioritize this physical characteristic, where does that leave us? Are we the only species with dedicated facial processing functions? Not quite. As NPR notes, other primates also have groups of specialized neurons designed to facilitate facial recognition. As our closest evolutionary cousins, this makes sense since many primate species demonstrate human-like interactions within social groups.
And primates aren’t the only ones with a face focus — research suggests that cats have specific facial expressions that can be decoded by humans with enough observation. The existence of these expressions also suggests that other cats could potentially recognize them and, in turn, observe and interpret human expressions. However, similar to how cats recognize their human-given names but don’t respond unless they feel like it, they simply may not care to do so with humans.
Also making the list of facial-focused species? Sheep. As pack animals with relatively large brains, it makes sense that sheep learn to quickly recognize common companions. But studies also found a predisposition for facial recognition — even having only seen their human handlers in person, sheep were quickly able to recognize their photograph. In addition, they were able to recognize facial images both straight-on and from an angle, and with similar precision as humans.
The Eyes Have It
What do dogs see when they look at us? Trusted kin and familiar pack mates. And although canine vision may use a broader data set to ensure species safety, dogs’ natural tendency toward empathy and engagement means that, while your face isn’t the biggest priority, they’re always happy to take a look.