MISSOULA — Have you ever wondered if your dog really knows you or if they know if we are happy or mad at them? A recent publication in Nature is the first attempt to combine multiple methods to improve the understanding of our relationship with our furry companions.
The unique relationship between dogs and people bears a remarkable resemblance to the attachment bond of human infants with their mothers.
Dogs are dependent on our care and their behavior seems specifically geared to engage their caregiving system.
Neuroimaging studies of human mothers viewing their children showed that intimate parent–child emotional states are connected to functionally specialized areas in the brain. These areas in mammals are usually associated with affective processes and may support the activation of human attachment-related functions in parenting.
The study has revealed that dogs can assess humans’ attentional states and differentiate their caregiver from another familiar person or from a stranger.
Dogs also have the ability to distinguish between good and bad facial expressions of humans and can base their reactions based on these expressions. Using neuroimaging scientists found that your dog reacts to your facial expressions in a part of the brain most commonly associated with reward processing.
Researchers also tracked dogs' eyes to determine the individual looking patterns of dogs while they perceived different human faces and facial expressions -- assessing whether dogs showed specific preferences for their owners faces. When dogs were confronted with a stranger's face, they showed a quicker fixation on the stranger’s face.
This may seem strange as we’d expect our dogs to have a quicker reaction to the ones that take care of them right? Well, as we know dogs are generally attracted to novel objects and a stranger's face is therefore perceived as something novel. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense because it is necessary to rapidly recognize a potential threat, such as a stranger -- so long ago before they were domesticated recognizing threats was a much bigger need.
When researchers used the eye tracker on the dog, comparing them to their owner and someone they are familiar with, the dogs would look longer at their owners.
Researchers also studied a dog’s reaction when expressing a happy or mad face. The dogs responded to the mad faces with larger pupils. Now, this can be assumed that because of this they have more of an emotional reaction but researchers still can't be sure about that quite yet.
These studies ultimately revealed that the dog–human relationship resembles the same bond a human mother has with her child.
Although each method and experimental setup has its limitations, this study's findings are very promising and set the stage for similar future work.