“Puppy dog eyes” may be cute but they’re also a super-effective communication tool, according to new research on the power of a dog’s gaze.
Anyone who’s ever owned a dog will be familiar with their master ability to manipulate.
You know, and they know, that it’s really not time for yet another chew stick treat. And yet, one sad look from them, and you’re putty in their hands.
Now a new study has confirmed the power of a simple gaze, with nearly two-thirds of dog owners saying that their pets use a look as the primary way to communicate their needs.
Dogs tend to use their eyes to “talk” to their owners above and beyond methods such as barking, whining or running in circles, according to the research by Pet Munchies and K9 Magazine.
Of the 1,100 owners interviewed in the study, 58% said their dogs used a look to indicate what they want; although this can sometimes descend into a nose nudge if they are not responded to in a timely fashion.
Meanwhile, 39% said their canines use strategic movement to communicate their needs (e.g. standing by the door to go for a walk) while 7.5% said their pets resort to stealing something if they’re not getting the attention they crave.
The fact that dogs can communicate so well with their eyes alone is no accident.
Previous research on the topic found that “puppy dog eyes” – that innocent, baleful expression all dog owners will recognise – has evolved over centuries of domestication.
Psychologist Juliane Kaminski and her team at the University of Portsmouth found that, in 20,000 years of cohabitation, the anatomy of a dog’s eyebrow has changed in order to make their faces more readable to humans.
In meeting a person’s gaze, dogs often raise their inner eyebrow muscles, which make their eyes look larger and more emotive.
In filming shelter animals, Kaminski and her colleagues found that dogs were adopted more quickly when they used exactly this gesture.
“It was a very surprising result,” she says. “We didn’t expect something as small as eyebrow movement to have a big effect.”
Another study uncovered a hormonal mechanism behind the dog’s gaze.
It showed that the same rise in oxytocin levels that promotes bonding and trust between mother and baby is present in dogs and their owners who maintain lots of eye contact.
But this response, and also the eyebrow muscle, is lacking in the grey wolf: the dog’s primary ancestor.
“Over the years, dogs have extended how they talk to us using their gaze with the evolution of the ‘puppy dog eyes’ look, which is designed to pull on our heartstring by mimicking the wide-eyed look of babies,” says K9 Magazine publisher Ryan O’Meara.
“Most dogs are using the power of the gaze as more of a stare to get us to understand what they want from us and owners understand what their dogs are telling them.”