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2010-12-15 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Standing behind a oneway glass window, could your dog pick you out of a police lineup? According to new findings in the journal Animal Behaviour, not only do dogs recognize their owners’ faces, but they rely on sight more than previously thought to identify their best friend. In addition, dogs prefer to stare at their owner’s familiar visage rather than at a stranger’s mug.

Dr. Paolo Mongillo from the University of Padua led the study called Selective attention to humans in companion dogs, canis familiaris. The team’s discoveries shed light on how thousands of years of domestication have affected canine behavior. Mongillo realized that although others had studied how dogs interacted with humans, no one had tried to explain how dogs focused their attention on one person over others or how much dogs seemed to prefer their special person.


Testing whether dogs recognize their owners by their faces. Testing whether dogs recognize their owners by their faces. Sixty dogs were used in the Italian researchers’ experiment to determine whether dogs could recognize the facial features of their owners without smelling them or listening to their voices. Dr. Mongillo and his team had the owner and a stranger walk across a room several times with each dog watching from afar. The people walked in opposite directions so they crossed several times in front of the dog. The scientists compared the amount of attention paid to the owners and the strangers. As expected, the strangers got quick glances while the owners received long gazes.

Next, the volunteers were asked to leave the room via two different doors. The dog was allowed to move freely throughout the room. Most dogs chose to wait by the owner’s exit. This was the anticipated outcome but no one previously ever gauged the degree of attentiveness. The team measured the length of the gaze bouts and the overall duration of visual orientation toward different targets (the doors).


“Shadow” ~ senior longhaired cat “Shadow” ~ senior longhaired cat Dr. Mongillo suggests this observed behavior separates dogs from their wolf cousins. Wild canids are tuned into body signals and cues from other animals in their social groups while pet dogs are so much a part of a human social group that they are even able to distinguish our faces. Think of the dog tied up to the lamp post in the crowded city while the owners dine. These pups study every face that leaves the restaurant until their grand reunion. This visual discrimination skill is a by-product of domestication especially coexistence with the specific two-legged creatures who cater to their every canine whim.

The second part of the study looked like something off the Sci Fi Channel. To make sure the dogs weren’t relying on scent, the human participants were asked to repeat the experiment with bags over their heads. In this phase the dogs were much less attentive to their owners. (It is unclear whether Dr. Mongillo controlled for the canine embarrassment factor. There is a chance that a self-respected pooch may not wish to associate with anyone who looks so bizarre or sinister.)


“The Wrong Brothers - Wilbur & Orville” “The Wrong Brothers - Wilbur & Orville” In a final test, dogs seven years old or older were less likely to watch their owner or sit by their owner’s door which Dr. Mongillo says demonstrates that concentration diminishes with age. I beg to differ. Maybe visual acuity is weaker; or maybe mature dogs just don’t fret anymore, because they are secure their owners will return.

So, to get back to the question of the police lineup, the answer is a resounding Yes. Your dog can pick you out of a line up. If less than seven years old, “Buster” would probably point his incriminating paw at you. Don’t bring him along as an accomplice if you are planning a crime spree; unless, of course, you decide to wear an outlaw mask or put a silly bag over your head.

•TWO HOLIDAY PET IDEAS…The 2011 Buddy Cares Calendar makes a great stocking stuffer. All proceeds from the $10 calendar benefit Buddy Cares, which is the wellness 501 (c) 3 organization that aids Babylon Town Shelter dogs and cats. Calendars are available at the shelter, Town Hall or by email: lvankirk@townofbabylon.com. Mr. July is “Phelps” the Babylon Shelter and later Last Hope Retriever mix who swam the Mayhew Canal and was profiled here in

“Pets” several times.

•Trees of Love

Lighting Ceremony Last Hope

Animal Rescue is continuing a

12-year-old tradition. Ribbons are placed on two

Trees of Love to honor living and to remember deceased cherished pets while a third tree is decorated with ribbons remembering the countless pets who died unwanted in shelters around the country. These ribbons are personalized and can be purchased for a $10 donation each at www.lasthopeanimalrescue.org (Coming Events). The public is invited to the tree lighting ceremony and refreshments this Sat. December 18 at 4 pm at St. Bede’s Church, 220 Berry Hill Rd, Syosset.

•For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631- 643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “ The Wrong Brothers- Wilbur & Orville” in Cage 4 are two adorable Retriever/Aussie mixes, about 10 months old, found flying around Birchwood Park in Deer Park. Someone already neutered them. “Shadow” in C-1 is a senior longhaired female cat, very “purrsonable.”

Assorted Shepherds: “Steve” in Cage 1; male/female duo in Cage 44, also found in Deer Park.

Males: “Davy”# 93520 Pit; Mini Poodle #93717 recovering well from fractured pelvis; “Blanco” #93652 mature Chihuahua; “Oreo” & “Mac” great cats in C-9 & 10- their owner was deployed to Iraq.

Females: “Madison” #93724-Jack Russell Terrier; “Lydia” #93376-Pit.

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