Study Proves Dogs Recognize Their Owners' Faces

A golden retriever looks up adoringly at its owner.

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Does your dog like watch you and follow you when you walk around a room? It's studying, and recognizing, your face, according to new research published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

The study, led by Paolo Mongillo from the University of Padua in Italy, found that dogs can not only recognize their owners' faces, but they also rely on their sense of sight more than previously understood. Not only that, they use their eyes to help distinguish their owners from crowds of other people.

It's the first study of its kind, and it helps shed some light on how dogs adapted to become our domesticaed companions, Mongillo told BBC News. "If you imagine a dog in a real setting in a 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."

According to the study's abstract, the experiment let dogs watch two people (their owners and a stranger) as they walked in and out of a set of doors. And the end of the sequence, the dogs were allowed to go to one of the two doors, and almost always chose the door their owners had last used.

"Most of the dogs gazed at their owners for most of the time and then chose to wait by the owner's door," Mongillo told the BBC.

Lest you think they were relying upon scent, the experiment was repeated, only this time the humans wore bags over their faces. With no faces to see, the dogs were less focused on tracking the movements of their owners.

The study had another component, which used older dogs (those 7 years or older) in the same situations. It turned out that they were not as focused or able to keep their attention on their owners, which shows that dogs' brains age in similar ways to the human brain.

This isn't the first study to find that animals can recognize individual people. A team from the University of Washington found that crows can recognize people by their faces. The big difference: they weren't looking for "best friends," but for potential enemies. Bees, meanwhile, can recognize individual flowers, and even human faces if they think of them as if they were flowers, according to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Bees and crows, however, won't fetch your slippers, so dogs still have the advantage.