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Dogs and humans process body posture and social information in surprisingly similar ways

Dogs and humans share an extraordinary relationship that has evolved over thousands of years. A new study has now discovered that both species process social information and body posture in surprisingly similar ways.

Researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna have delved deeper into the evolution of this bond to determine what makes it so strong. Their study provides valuable insight into how dogs perceive both their human counterparts and their environment.

This finding reinforces the central role of the temporal lobe in social communication and perception. The results are published in the journal Communications Biology.

Perceiving social information from faces and bodies

The groundbreaking research looks into the temporal lobe. This is the part of the brain integral to perceiving faces and bodies. It is shared by both humans and primates.

Dogs also have this lobe. Recent behavioral studies have showcased their ability to interpret facial expressions and body language such as hand gestures. These abilities mirror the same skills humans possess.

“Whether this behavioral expertise is also reflected in the dog brain was the content of our study. Only a few research groups can conduct comparative magnetic resonance imaging studies with dogs,” explained study first author Magdalena Boch.

The research team is one of only four in the world conducting magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies with pet dogs. The experts have developed training protocols to ensure the dogs are very comfortable during the MRI. They are also able to leave the MRI machine whenever they wish.

What the researchers discovered about body posture

This research involved 40 human participants and 15 pet dogs. It presents the first evidence of a specialized brain region in the canine temporal lobe dedicated to visually perceiving body postures.

Furthermore, other areas of the dog brain were found to be equally engaged in perceiving social information through both faces and bodies. 

Notably, the study revealed that the canine response was not confined to visual areas. When dogs view faces and bodies, there’s also a varied activation in regions responsible for processing odours.

In humans, the research confirmed the existence of regions specifically designed for facial recognition. “We humans often focus on the face when communicating with others. Our results suggest that faces are also an important source of information for dogs. However, body postures and holistic perception seem to play a superior role,” explained Boch.

Processing information using specialized brain regions

The specialized brain regions were equally activated in dogs when viewing images of their own species, or humans. This finding was particularly compelling for the researchers.

Study co-author Ludwig Huber suggests that this finding speaks to the profound connection between dogs and humans. “Dogs and humans may not be closely related, but they have been close companions for thousands of years,” said Huber.

“Therefore, comparing dogs and humans also gives us new insights into the so-called convergent evolution of social perception and information processing processes,” said study co-author Claus Lamm.

In other words, despite divergent evolutionary paths, the bond between dogs and humans has sparked similarities in social perception and information processing.

How dogs process social information and body posture

Dogs have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years and have developed remarkable social cognitive abilities as a result. While dogs’ specific cognitive processes are not entirely understood, they are believed to process social information through a variety of ways:

Visual cues

Dogs are sensitive to human body language, facial expressions, and gestures. For example, they can follow pointing gestures to locate hidden food and react differently to happy, sad, or angry facial expressions. Dogs also observe and react to social interactions between humans, and can even demonstrate jealousy-like behavior when their owner shows affection to other dogs.

Auditory cues

Dogs are adept at processing vocal cues. They can recognize their owner’s voice, respond to their name, and follow verbal commands. They can also distinguish between the emotional content of human speech, responding differently to happy, neutral, or angry tones.

Olfactory cues

Dogs’ sense of smell is incredibly advanced. While it’s not entirely understood how this contributes to their social cognition, it’s likely that they gather a lot of social information through scent. For instance, they can recognize familiar humans or other dogs through smell and may also pick up on hormonal changes that indicate stress or fear.

Empathy and emotional contagion

Dogs seem to show empathetic responses, meaning they can pick up on and react to the emotions of humans. For example, dogs often respond to their owners’ distress by providing comfort. This emotional contagion extends to picking up on other dogs’ emotions too.

Theory of mind

While the idea that dogs possess a theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others) is still under debate, some research suggests dogs might understand the concept of human perspective to some extent. This is evident in behaviors like deceptive begging, where a dog will more often beg from a human who can see the food they’re holding than one who can’t.

Learning from humans

Dogs are able to learn from observing human behavior. For example, they can learn to solve a puzzle by watching a human do it first. This suggests that dogs are not only tuned in to human social cues but can use this information to learn new skills or solve problems.

Attachment and social bonding

Dogs form strong social bonds with humans, showing separation anxiety when apart from their owners and joy upon reunion. They also prefer to interact with humans over objects or food when given a choice, indicating that they value social interaction highly.

Remember that individual differences in breed, training, and personality can all influence how a particular dog processes and reacts to social information.


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