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Babies stare intently into their mother’s eyes and mothers return the gaze with love and devotion. These quiet moments of contentment and bonding have a solid biologic basis and have evolved over thousands of years. Both mother and child release oxytocin in response to gazing deeply into one another’s eyes. In fact, the level of oxytocin released by a mother impacts how deeply she is capable of bonding with her child. Did you know that gazing into your dog’s eyes has the same effect on both owner and dog?
Researchers have found that dogs release oxytocin in response to gazing at their owners, and the reverse holds true as well. The oxytocin release is relatively dramatic for both dogs and humans, with dogs experience a greater than 100% increase in oxytocin and humans seeing a 300 fold increase in oxytocin levels. The reason for this mutually beneficial hormonal release is likely evolutionary in nature.
Evolution of a Bond
We know that dogs and wolves are very closely related from a genetic standpoint. They share nearly 99.9% common DNA and can interbreed and produce offspring, but are uniquely different creatures. Dogs can understand and communicate with humans in a way in which wolves cannot. In fact, there is strong suggestion in the research community that part of the evolution of the dog/human relationship has to do with dogs slowly developing the cognitive ability to actually communicate with humans and recognize intent.
Interestingly, wolves do not receive an oxytocin boost when gazing upon a human and vice versa. Perhaps the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” has something to do with this. Another unique evolutionary detail is the fact that wolves are missing the levator anguli oculi medialis muscle. This muscle is responsible for raising the inner eyebrow and allows dogs to make more expressive facial gestures. The gestures they can make share similarities with those made by humans. People are inclined to respond much more favorably to “puppy dog eyes” than the cold, calculating stare of a wolf.
A Form of Communication
Now that we know the evolutionary basis behind the human/canine bond and “puppy dog eyes,” what are the practical, everyday reasons your dog might stare at you?
Understanding a Dog’s Stare
Your dog is likely attempting to do one of the following things: communicate their needs, anticipate your next direction, seek protection from you, or attempt to understand your needs. There are some instances where a stare can also mean your dog is trying to get you to “back off” or is trying to keep something from you.
We have all experienced pets watching us expectantly as we prepare food or collect a leash for the morning walk. The language is clear; our dogs are asking us to feed them or to take them out for a stroll. Agility or obedience-trained dogs will keep their eyes glued to their handler’s face in anticipation of upcoming commands. “Which jump am I to run to next or which obstacle should I climb over,” their eyes ask.
Communicating Fear or Anger
Have you noticed your dog may nervously glance at you while at the veterinarian’s office, since they seek comfort and confidence in your presence? We have all experienced our dogs gazing deeply into our faces with a worried expression when we ourselves are upset, crying, or even angry. It is during those times that our best friends are more than likely attempting to comfort us.
It is very rare that a dog stares at us to communicate a harsh message, but it can occur. A hard, unblinking stare with a low head, arched back, and pulled back upper lip indicates that the dog is in an aggressive state. It is best to calmly retreat and avoid further eye contact with a dog in such a posture.
Dogs are man’s best friend for a reason. They have uniquely evolved in harmony with us to literally read our faces and anticipate our actions, needs, and intent. This shared ability to communicate is mutually beneficial and changes us biochemically, mentally, and emotionally. Our eyes truly are “the windows to the soul” and our dogs are masters at helping us find it.