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Can Dogs Recognize Faces? What Science Says

Written by: Keri-Beth Clur

Last Updated on June 21, 2024 by Dogster Team

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Can Dogs Recognize Faces? What Science Says

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Dr. Ashley Darby Photo

REVIEWED & FACT-CHECKED BY

Dr. Ashley Darby

BVSc (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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We know that dogs have an excellent sense of smell and can identify their favorite people by their scents, but do dogs also use their sense of sight? The answer is yes! Dogs can recognize people by their faces and expressions. Although your dog doesn’t need to see your face to recognize you, your facial expressions are important when communicating and connecting with your pet.

It’s not just your face that your dog can recognize. They can recognize the faces of all those whom they’re familiar with. However, dogs tend to react the same way to the back of a person’s head as they do to the front of it because they aren’t biologically responsive to faces.1 Instead, their response is greater to other forms of information, such as smell and body movements.

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Can Dogs Recognize Their Owners’ Faces?

Dogs can recognize their owners’ faces, and the signs of that are obvious. They’ll start to wag their tails, whine in excitement, lick the person’s hands and feet, and even run around. Dogs recognize their owners’ faces because they are constantly watching the things they do and how they react. They’re interested in their owners and are ready to get up and join them as they move from one room to another.

Over many centuries, dogs have been domesticated and brought indoors to live alongside people inside the home. As dogs spent more time with humans, they adapted to picking up on their behaviors and moods, which helped them interact with people better.

Your dog is constantly watching your body movements and facial expressions to understand you, as this is how you communicate with them, whether you’re aware of it or not. One study showed that dogs can use facial expressions and sounds from humans and were able to match the sound to the expression and react accordingly.2 You can test this with your dog: Without making a sound, do they get excited if you sit in front of them and grin? If so, they’ve learned what your facial expressions mean and respond to them as they change.

So, if you’ve ever worried that your dog wouldn’t be able to pick you out of a crowd, worry no longer. Your dog has studied your facial expressions, knows your voice, and loves your scent—they aren’t going to get you confused with anyone else.

Welsh Corgi dog being petted by owner outside at a park
Image Credit: Tanya Consaul Photography, Shutterstock

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Can Dogs Recognize Faces on Photographs?

You may have a display of photographs of all your loved ones across the walls of your home. These photographs can be reminders of good times and an excellent way to remind young children of who their family members are, especially those who live far away and can’t visit often.

You might even take a few photographs off the wall to show your dog some of their favorite people, but are you wasting your time, or can they actually recognize faces in photographs? It turns out that if the photograph is clear, your dog will be able to recognize and distinguish between different people in different photographs. However, if it’s a photograph from 10 years ago and the person looks very different, your dog won’t be able to recognize them. Additionally, it can be more difficult for them if part of a person’s head is covered in the photograph.

In fact, it’s not only the faces of familiar people that dogs can recognize from photographs, but they’re also often able to accurately identify the faces of other dogs that they’ve spent a lot of time with.

dog with owner using laptop
Image Credit: SpeedKingz, Shutterstock

Can Dogs Recognize Faces on Video Calls?

Screens are a little more challenging for dogs, as canines may perceive the lights differently than we do. Some dogs are more responsive to screens than others, with one study suggesting that age, visual status, and breed may influence how well they interact with screens.

Some dogs don’t enjoy television and video calls because they have a high flicker sensitivity. As dogs process visual information more quickly than a screen projects it out, the images on the screen appear to flicker. Dogs can detect flicker at 70 to >80 Hz, while a television screen is updated 60 times/sec.

This doesn’t mean that you should never video call your dog when you’re away and missing them because they’re usually able to recognize your voice when you talk to them, unless the connection is bad and your voice is breaking up or muffled. Be sure to leave something behind that has your smell on it so the sitter can give it to your dog when you call. This will remind them of you, even if the connection is poor and they aren’t able to recognize your face or voice from the phone.

Young smiling girl owner holding phone with yorkshire terrier dog sitting in park
Image Credit: Rohappy, Shutterstock

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How Long Can a Dog Remember a Loved One?

Dogs have better long-term memory than short-term memory, and instead of reliving their memories like a movie in their minds, they remember things through associations, such as the feelings they felt, the attention they received, and the treats they were rewarded with for certain behaviors. Not only can dogs recognize faces, but they can also remember them.

If you’ve gone away for some time or undergone surgery that has changed your appearance, your dog will still be able to recognize you. As we’ve mentioned, sight isn’t the only sense that dogs use to identify a person. When they can use all their senses together, they’re able to recognize a loved one without a problem.

Although a dog’s memory works differently from that of a human, their associations are long-lasting, and they can remember and recognize people whom they haven’t been around for many years.

golden retriever dog leaning to owner's leg
Image Credit: trofalenaRV, Shutterstock

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Conclusion

Dogs watch the people they love closely and know what they look like. They’re able to recognize a person’s face, sometimes even in large photographs. However, a video call might not be as effective because the changes in brightness and motion on a small phone screen make it hard for them to see images clearly.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call them when you’re away, though, because they’d still love to hear your voice!


Featured Image Credit: gemphoto, Shutterstock

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