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Tag: the dog project

How our dogs read our faces


If you’re wondering how your dog is able to magically sense when you are sad, take a look in the mirror.

(And quit moping, you might be bringing your dog down.)

A new study suggests dogs have a specialized region in their brains for processing faces, and that face-reading region in the temporal cortex may help explain how they’ve become so adept at reading human social cues — a skill that up to now has, at least in the eyes of scientists, only been well-documented in humans and other primates.

Dogs have “neural machinery” that has been “hard-wired through cognitive evolution,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and the senior author of the study.

Berns heads the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best friend.

The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation.

In previous research, the Dog Project identified a region of the canine brain that served as a reward center, and showed that region was responsible for a dog’s brain responding more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

In the current study, the researchers focused on how dogs respond to faces versus everyday objects, reports

“Dogs are obviously highly social animals,” Berns says, “so it makes sense that they would respond to faces. We wanted to know whether that response is learned or innate.”

The answer appears to be it’s a little of both — it was there to begin with, but has been honed over centuries of socializing with humans.

The study involved dogs viewing both static images and video images on a screen while undergoing an MRI.

Since dogs do not normally interact with two-dimensional images, they had to undergo training to learn to pay attention to the screen. Only six of the eight dogs enrolled in the study were able to hold a gaze for at least 30 seconds on each of the images, but for each of those six a region in their temporal lobe responded significantly more to movies of human faces.

The researchers have dubbed the canine face-processing region they identified the dog face area, or DFA.

(We assume they came up with that using that area of the human brain that is not too imaginative and wants to give everything an acronym.)

A previous study, decades ago, using electrophysiology, found sheep had facial recognition skills, but only a few face-selective cells were identified, as opposed to an entire region of the cortex, said Daniel Dilks, an Emory assistant professor of psychology and author of the study.

Humans, by the way, have at least three face processing regions in the brain.

“Dogs have been cohabitating with humans for longer than any other animal,” Dilks said. “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.”

(Photo courtesy of Gregory Berns, Emory University)