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Think your dog is oh-so-smart because he sits on command or fetches when instructed? He's way smarter than that. Dogs are able to recognize the faces of familiar people, according to Polish researchers from the University of Helsinki. Until now, it was widely thought that recognizing facial features was such a specialized skill that only humans and some primates could do it.

When your dog wags his tail, THIS is the message he is giving you.

The study: Led by Ouit Vainio, the team used eye movement tracking to determine dogs' ability to recognize faces. It is believed to be the first time this has ever been done. Specifically, dogs were shown photos on a computer screen of people and other canines, including images of their owners or another dog in the same family. In addition, they were shown photos of unfamiliar people and dogs. Prior to the experiment, none of the dogs had been trained to recognize faces.

"Dogs were trained to lie still during the image presentation and to perform the task independently. Dogs seemed to experience the task [as] rewarding, because they were very eager to participate," Vainio said in a university news release.

The results:

  • When the dogs saw photos of familiar human faces they looked at them more thoroughly than they did the unfamiliar faces, focusing especially on the eyes.

  • When they viewed faces of strangers, their gaze was less fixed and moved around more.

Vainio says this indicates the dogs were able to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar faces. In fact, he believes dogs may have a natural ability to do this, similar to the facial recognition skills of human beings.

In addition, the dogs looked longer at the photos of other dogs no matter if they knew them or not. Previous research has shown that dogs would rather look at other dogs' faces than the faces of humans.

The study findings were published in the journal Animal Cognition.

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