You looking at me? Why your dog stares at you
As you go about your daily activities, have you noticed your dog staring at you, following your every move? And have you ever wondered why your canine chum just can’t take his or her eyes off you? Plus, is it really true that dogs can only see in black and white?
Canines can be real stare bears. Because they’ve developed a close, domesticated relationship with humans over thousands of years, they’ve become adept at observing – and responding to – human behaviour.
What’s more, if you catch your canine chum staring at you, it’s not just because you’re the centre of their world. There are actually all sorts of reasons why dogs like to gaze at humans – from anticipation (is it time for walkies?) or wanting direction (what should I do in this situation?) to showing how much they love you (that soft expression with eyes slightly squinted). In fact, there’s a whole science of canine staring to unpack and it seems that there’s a lot more to dog staring than meets the eye...
Staring for social bonding
“Looking into one another’s eyes can increase hormones associated with social bonding,” says Laurie Santos, the director of the Yale University Center for Canine Cognition, USA. One of those hormones is oxytocin, also known as the love or cuddle hormone.
Many scientific studies have shown that mutual eye-to-eye contact between two humans – such as a mother and her baby – can strengthen their bond and help infants develop early social skills. It seems that something similar happens between humans and canines.
According to Japanese researchers, when dogs gaze into their owners’ eyes, the look activates the same hormonal bonding response, where both canines and humans experience that fuzzy love feeling. Staring long and lovingly into each other’s eyes provides a mood boost for both of you – this study found that of the dog-owner duos that spent the most amount of time staring at each other, the canines experienced a 130% rise in oxytocin levels, and humans saw a 300% increase.
What’s particularly interesting, as Laurie Santos points out, is the fact that this is the first time a positive hormonal bond has been discovered between two different species. In the wild, most animals avoid direct eye contact as this is generally seen as a challenge, or sign of aggression. Yet, this eye-to-eye bond lets your dog interact with you in a way that no other animal can – which may go a long way to explaining how canines became human’s best friend.
Staring for you to do something
Your dog may stare at you because he or she wants attention, or to play – or simply because a toy has got stuck under the sofa and they require the services of their human to fish it out. If your dog needs to relieve themselves, staring is a way of communicating that he or she needs to go outside. This may be accompanied by a whine or a woof to ensure the message is getting across – and will continue until you get up and open the back door.
Staring for approval
Dogs often like to feel that their human is on board with their decisions. Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, JoAnna Pendergrass, says: “When your dog is well-trained, he will stare at you to wait for a cue. For example, if you’re going for a walk and approach a crosswalk (crossing), your dog may stare up at you to determine if he should sit or continue walking. Your dog wants to please you, so his stare will serve as a question as to what he should do next to make you happy.”
Staring to get a reward
Most dogs quickly cotton on to what behaviours will earn them a reward and will watch you vigilantly in case a chance for a treat or a game occurs. Professional dog trainer, Stephanie Gibeault, writing for the American Kennel Club adds: “Dogs also wait for more deliberate cues from their owners. Cues to perform a specific behaviour like sit or down are chances to earn a reward. Since dogs love getting a treat, toy, or game, they will keep an eye out for these opportunities. This is particularly true of dogs trained with positive reinforcement methods. These dogs learn to love training and wait eagerly for signs.”
Rather than bellowing commands to a bemused hound (who'd love to help if he or she understood what you're asking for) reward-based training opens us a way for you to engage with your dog in a mutually beneficial activity >>
Staring to get what they want
Dogs will also happily stare at their human to manipulate them to get something they want. If it works – such as staring at you while you’re eating in the hope of getting a titbit – it’s a behaviour they’ll repeat. Stephanie Gibeault says: “This is a common scenario with begging at the dinner table. If the dog stares long enough, the owner will hand over a morsel of their meal. In truth, you have created that monster. In the beginning, the dog would have stared simply out of interest. If you ignored the gaze, your pup probably would have found something else to do. But the stare makes you feel uncomfortable or guilty, so you give in to make it stop. And there you have it – the dog has learned a new way to communicate.”
DOGS JUST SEE IN BLACK AND WHITE – TRUE OR FALSE?
The common belief that canines see in monochrome is actually untrue. Dogs definitely see things differently to humans and, while they may not see us in our full, technicolour glory, their view of the world is far more vibrant than an old black and white movie.
What colours look like to canines
While most humans see a full spectrum of colours from red to violet, dogs lack some of the light receptors in their eyes that allow us to see certain colours, particularly in the red and green range. But canines can still see yellow and blue. Nancy Dreschel, Associate Teaching Professor of Small Animal Science, Penn State University, USA, explains it like this:
“What you see as red or orange, to a dog may just be another shade of tan. To my dog, Sparky, a bright orange ball lying in the green grass may look like a tan ball in another shade of tan grass. But his bright blue ball will look similar to both of us.” This is because a human retina contains three types of special cone-shaped cells that are responsible for all the colours we can see, whereas canines only have two types of cone receptors.
Humans can see distance better...
What’s more, dogs probably don’t see as clearly as we do either. Nancy Dreschel adds: “While we think of perfect vision in humans as being 20/20, typical vision in dogs is probably closer to 20/75. This means that what a person with normal vision could see from 75 feet away, a dog would need to be just 20 feet away to see as clearly.”
... but dogs ace dim light vision
However, when it comes to seeing well in dim light, dogs have the edge. Scientists believe canines can probably see as well at dusk or dawn as they can in the middle of the day. This is because, compared to humans, dog retinas have a higher percentage and type of another kind of visual receptor, called rod cells, that function better in low light than cone cells do. Dogs also have a reflective tissue layer called a tapetum lucidum at the back of their eyes that helps them see in less light. This mirror-like layer collects and concentrates the available light to help them see when it’s dark.
Why humans and canines have different types of vision
Dogs share their type of vision with many other animals, including cats and foxes. Nancy Dreschel explains why this is likely to be the case: “Scientists think it’s important for these hunters to be able to detect the motion of their nocturnal prey, and that’s why their vision evolved in this way. As many mammals developed the ability to forage and hunt in twilight or dark conditions, they gave up the ability to see the variety of colours that most birds, reptiles and primates have. People didn’t evolve to be active all night, so we kept the colour vision and better visual acuity.”
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