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A new study led by the University of Padua in Italy has shown how much dogs rely on seeing their owners’ faces in order to recognise them.  The study also measured how much dogs prefer to gaze at and follow their owners, rather than a stranger.

This latest research reported in the latest Animal Behaviour journal, has shed more light on how the process of domestication over the thousands of years has affected the behaviour of our four-legged friends.

The research was headed up by Paolo Mongillo who explained that, although many researchers have studied how dogs interact with humans, no one had yet investigated how the animals focused on one person in preference to another, or just how much companion dogs “prefer” their owners.

In the first part of the experiment, Dr Mongillo’s team had a dog in an empty room and instructed the owner and another person who was unfamiliar to the dog, to walk across the room several times.  The people crossed the room in opposite directions, so that they passed the dog repeatedly.  The researchers measured how long the dog looked at one person versus another.  The team then instructed the two people to leave the room through two doors and allowed the dog to approach one of the doors.  Dr Mongillo said: “Most of the dogs gazed at their owners for most of the time and then chose to wait by the owner’s door.”

In the second part of this study, the researchers asked the people to cover their faces, and then the volunteers walked across the room with bags over their heads.  During this part of the experiment, the dogs’ gaze was less attracted to their owners, revealing just how much dogs rely on human faces for recognition.

Although the researchers expected the companion dogs to have a preference to gaze at their owners when they could see the people’s faces, no one has measured this behaviour before.  Dr Mongillo says: “If you imagine a dog in a real setting in the city or anywhere in the middle of a crowd or a crowded space, you can see how the animal must have adapted to give preferential attention to its owner.”

This new evidence together with other studies confirms how domestic dogs have become so attuned to human social groups that they are able to recognise some human facial expressions.  Indeed, studies of mitochondrial DNA indicate this ability likely started with the process of dog domestication, between 15,000 to 40,000 years ago.

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