“Our findings show that dogs have an innate way to process faces in their brains, a quality that has previously only been well-documented in humans and other primates,” study senior author Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said in a university news release.
The discovery of this face-processing area in the temporal cortex may help explain why dogs are so sensitive to human social cues, according to the authors of the study published Aug. 4 in the journal PeerJ.
“Dogs are obviously highly social animals, so it makes sense that they would respond to faces. We wanted to know whether that response is learned or innate,” said Berns, who leads the Dog Project in the university’s psychology department.
The six dogs in the study were trained to voluntarily enter a functional MRI machine and remain motionless during scanning without the need for restraints or sedation. Their brains were scanned while they were shown videos of faces and everyday objects.
A region in the dogs’ temporal lobe showed much more activity when they saw human and dog faces than everyday objects. The researchers have named this region the dog face area.
The findings show that dogs are born with this innate response to faces. If it was learned — for example, by associating a human face with food — then faces would trigger a response in the reward region of their brains, Berns explained.
People have at least three face-processing regions in the brain. Being able to identify faces is important for any social animal, the researchers suggested.
“Dogs have been cohabitating with humans for longer than any other animal,” study first author Daniel Dilks, an assistant professor of psychology at Emory, said in the news release.
“They are incredibly social, not just with other members of their pack, but across species. Understanding more about canine cognition and perception may tell us more about social cognition and perception in general,” he explained.