Dogs don't perceive faces and speech

Wednesday 18th March 2020 05:47 EDT

Many dog owners treat their good boys and girls just like they might care for a tiny human. But a series of recent studies showed that dogs don't perceive faces and speech the same way people do. While this might sound sad to the people who love their pups, it gives researchers better insight into how canines think and could help lead to better training.

“These are critters that live with us on a day-to-day basis,” an assistant clinical professor in the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine who did not participate in the study, added. “Understanding how they process that environment is undoubtedly going to help us lead better lives with them.”

In two different studies in the series, researchers looked at how dogs understand human faces and speech by using MRI, a kind of brain scan that tracks cerebral activity by examining blood flow. All the dogs in the studies went through special training to be able to sit through the MRI without moving.

One group with 13 dogs the other with 11 dogs - looked at photos of people’s faces. The research used images with scrambled human facial features versus regular photos. The researchers wondered if dogs perceived human faces like primates do, meaning they recognize people mainly by their noses, eyes and mouths. But the pooches had a hard time differentiating the two, meaning they don't read images of faces the same way humans do.

“The dog brain may not have the same tools to process the inner parts of the face (only eyes, nose, mouth),” said a graduate student in the ethology department at Eötvös University in Hungary. “The findings are in line with previous behavioral studies, which also reported that dogs cannot recognize their owners based on their inner faces without specific training.”

Experts believe dogs still know how to identify who their people are

“Dogs are doing fine with getting information from people's faces, they just may not use the same mechanism or brain areas as humans,” she said. “Plus, we usually do not only display our emotions on our inner faces (alone); we talk, we move, we sweat.”

Another study looked at how dogs perceive human speech. Researchers examined how 12 dogs understand who is speaking by having the pooches listen to people say real or nonsense words. While dogs used different areas of their brains than humans to determine who is talking, dogs still can tell the difference.

“Dogs live in an environment that is rich in speech and we communicate with them by talking to them,” a post-doctoral researcher at the neuroethology communication lab at Eötvös University in Hungary, said. "It is therefore important to understand what elements of speech they can process."

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