Dogs (Canis familiaris) recognise our faces in photographs: implications for existing and future research

Abstract

Dogs are an ideal species to investigate phylogenetic and ontogenetic factors contributing to face recognition. Previous research has found that dogs can recognise their owner using visual information about the person’s face, presented live. However, a thorough investigation of face processing mechanisms requires the use of graphical representations and it currently remains unclear whether dogs are able to spontaneously recognise human faces in photographs. To test this, pet dogs (N = 60) were briefly separated from their owners and, to achieve reunion, they needed to select the location indicated by a photograph of their owner’s face, rather than that of an unfamiliar person concurrently presented. Photographs were taken under optimal and suboptimal (non-frontally oriented and unevenly illuminated faces) conditions. Results revealed that dogs approached their owner significantly above chance level when presented with photos taken under optimal conditions. Further analysis revealed no difference in the probability of choosing the owner between the optimal and suboptimal conditions. Dogs were more likely to choose the owner if they directed a higher percentage of looking time towards the owner’s photograph compared to the stranger’s one. In addition, the longer the total viewing time of both photos, the higher the probability that dogs chose the stranger. A main effect of dogs’ sex was also obtained, with a higher probability of male dogs choosing the owner’s photograph. This study provides direct evidence that dogs are able to recognise their owner’s face from photographs. The results imply that motion and three-dimensional information is not necessary for recognition. The findings also support the ecological valence of such stimuli and increase the validity of previous investigations into dog cognition that used two-dimensional representations of faces. The effects of attention may reflect differences at the individual level in attraction towards novel faces or in the recruitment of different face processing mechanisms.

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Ackowledgements

We are very grateful to Carlo Poltronieri and Sabina Callegari for their technical assistance, and to all the dogs’ owners for volunteering their time. CJE is supported by a post-doc grant from the University of Padua (Grant Nr. BIRD178748/17) and ML is supported by a PhD grant from Fondazione Cariparo. This study was funded by the University of Padua (Grant Nr. DOR1927411/19, granted to PM).

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Correspondence to Paolo Mongillo.

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Eatherington, C.J., Mongillo, P., Lõoke, M. et al. Dogs (Canis familiaris) recognise our faces in photographs: implications for existing and future research. Anim Cogn 23, 711–719 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01382-3

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Keywords

  • Dogs
  • Human face recognition
  • Owner
  • Photographs
  • Viewing conditions