You’re not imagining it: Your dog loves looking deeply into your eyes while you smile just as much as you love your pup’s sweet doggie grin. It’s clearly a mutual admiration between the two of you, but it’s also science.
Every time you lovingly gaze into your canine’s eyes, its levels of oxytocin — the hormone associated with love, attachment and trust — rise, as do your own. But scientists knew that part already. Recently, researchers at the University of Helsinki’s Canine Mind project have discovered that dogs love seeing humans smile so much that they may even ignore the presence of danger in lieu of a view of our pearly whites. The results were published in October in the Frontiers in Psychology journal.
For the study, 43 dogs were shown images of smiling or angry human faces. The dogs were each tested two times. The first time, they were under the influence of oxytocin (administered to the dogs as part of the test), and the second time they were not given additional oxytocin. Each time, the test pups’ pupil sizes were measured via an eye-tracking device. Since emotional response and attentiveness guide a dog’s gaze and regulate pupil size, eye-tracking gives insight into what goes on inside a canine’s mind.
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The study was led by Finnish Prof. Outi Vainio. “We were among the first researchers in the world to use pupil measurements in the evaluation of dogs’ emotional states … This method had previously only been used on humans and apes,” said Vainio.
Typically, dogs are more likely to focus on threatening or dangerous cues in any given social situation. The study revealed that the hormone oxytocin made them ignore or override their ingrained survival instinct. Instead, they were more interested in and reactive to smiling human faces. Accordingly, without the influence of oxytocin, the dogs’ pupils were more dilated as they responded to angry faces.
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“Both effects,” says Prof. Vainio, “promote dog-human communication and the development of affectionate relations.”
So, next time you’re disciplining your dog, keep in mind that old expression “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Turns out that turning your own frown upside down may have a greater positive net effect on your pooch’s mood and behavior than scolding or dog shaming.