If you’ve ever wondered why some dogs seem eager to make eye contact with people and others don’t, a new study offers some clues. Dogs with snub noses, young or playful, and those bred to respond to visual cues, such as shepherd breeds, are most likely to look directly into the human eye, the researchers found.
And it’s that loving eye contact with a dog that can help bond with humans.
“Eye contact is a very important signal for us humans,” said lead author of the study, Zsófia Bognár, Ph.D. student in the department of ethology and research member of the Senior Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. “It can improve communication, cooperation and the relationship between dog and owner.” The study was published Thursday in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
While some dogs naturally seek eye contact, that doesn’t mean others can’t learn, Bognár said in an email. “While dog-human eye contact can be affected by at least four independent traits on the dog side, that doesn’t mean these are the only things that determine your relationship with your dog.”
Other studies have shown that humans and dogs benefit from eye locking: Levels of oxytocin, the binding hormone, increase for both species when they make and maintain eye contact.
To explore what factors might make eye contact more likely, Bognár and his colleagues gathered 125 family dogs for the behavioral experiment. All of the dogs were subjected to a battery of tests, which began with the dogs meeting an unknown experimenter. In a later part of the series, the dogs were invited to play with the experimenter.
The 10th test assessed the dogs’ willingness to make eye contact with their new human friends.
One person stood in the middle of a room in the lab with a food pouch strapped to their belt, called the dog towards them and threw a piece of sausage on the floor when the dog arrived. The experimenter then stopped and waited for the dog to look her in the eye, then rewarded the dog with another piece of sausage.
The researchers counted the number of times each dog made eye contact within five minutes.
You can improve your dog’s willingness to make eye contact.
Shorter-headed dogs, such as Boxers, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, and Pugs, have this serious look because their eyes are structured differently than other dogs; they have more retinal ganglion cells, which are responsible for the initial processing of visual information at the center of their visual fields, the researchers said. This means that they can more easily focus on what is in front of them, like human owners.
Dogs with a long muzzle have eyes more oriented towards peripheral vision; that is, seeing what’s next to them, rather than what’s in front of them, Bognár said.
Playful puppies and dogs were also the most likely to look in the eyes of their owners. Working or herding dogs are natural because they are bred to “do their jobs alongside humans,” Bognár said. “They are in continuous eye contact with their owner or handler.”
Companion dogs that do not naturally seek eye contact can be trained to do so.
“You can improve your dog’s willingness to make eye contact, which could also improve your relationship,” she said.
Dr Katherine Houpt, professor emeritus of animal behavior medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, said it was a good idea to train a dog to make eye contact.
“Because if you say ‘look’ and the dog looks you in the eye, he’s not focused on the passing car or another dog he wants to chase,” Houpt said. “You will have more control over him, as well as a better relationship.”
“It’s really easy to train a dog to do this,” Houpt said. “You hold a piece of food away from you. Most, if they can’t get what they want, will look at you. As soon as they do, you say ‘look’ and give the food. 20 times, it becomes an order. “
Eye contact is important for humans, said Anne Burrows, an evolutionary anatomy specialist and professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
“I volunteer at a dog shelter, and those who don’t make eye contact don’t go very fast,” she says.