Can Dogs Tell the Difference Between Dogs and Other Animals?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on May 16, 2019

A common question that dog owners have is whether or not our pups can tell the difference between dogs and other animals. When you’re out on a walk and another dog approaches, can your dog sense exactly what kind of animal it is?

An initial assumption might be that dogs rely on their incredible sense of smell to differentiate between fellow dogs and other animals. But if you removed that option, can dogs accurately rely on their sight alone to reach an accurate conclusion?

As research into dog cognition becomes more and more popular, an increasing number of studies are being done. As a result, we continue to gain valuable insight to better answer these kinds of questions.

Here’s some insight on whether dogs can use their senses to discern their own species from other animals.

Can Dogs Recognize Faces in General?


To begin with, let’s look at how the dog brain processes and reacts to information. In a paper published in 2015 that investigated visual facial recognition in dogs, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI scans) to see which parts of a dog’s brain react to different stimuli.

The dogs were shown images of human faces, dog faces, objects, scenes and scrambled faces on a projection screen as their brain activity was monitored.

According to the study’s findings, dogs appear to be able to distinguish between faces (human and dog) and everyday objects. In addition, the scans showed that the area of a dog’s brain that processes faces is similar to that of humans.

Can Dogs Pick Out Other Dogs From a Lineup of Various Animals?


So now we know that dogs can visually distinguish faces from objects. But can they tell the difference between images of dog faces and those of humans and other animals?

The power of canine vision is on full display in a paper published in 2013 that looked into dog recognition—more specifically, whether or not dogs could “discriminate any type of dog from other species and can group all dogs whatever their phenotypes [observable characteristics] within the same category.”

In this experiment, researchers placed dogs in front of a computer screen and presented them with different animal and human faces. All of the nine canine participants showed an ability to group the dog images within the same category, separate from the other animals.

In other words, “dogs have the capacity of species discrimination despite their great phenotypic variability, based only on visual images of heads,” the study states.

When you add this apparent visual ability to discern dogs from other species to other powerful dog senses, it becomes clear that dogs can tell the difference between fellow dogs and other animals. If you already suspected that your dog possessed this ability, you now have the data to support your conclusions.

By: Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM

Featured Image: Cottrell

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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