Do you ever get the sense your dog is using his or her eyes to communicate with you -- throwing a look that seems to relay an ocean of emotion and a river of desires ranging from fear to hunger or sadness to indignation?
Maybe it’s not your imagination, after all. According to a new study released this week by the National Academy of Sciences, the ability of dogs to express themselves with their eyes stems from years of practice -- the cumulative benefit of developing facial muscles through trial and error.
In other words, dogs have learned that facial expressiveness is a good way to get what they want. Each time we respond favorably to the emotive eyes or raised foreheads of our dogs, we’re reinforcing the practice and encouraging them to do it again the next time.
I’ll buy that but only to a point.
Of the many mysteries of modern-day life, the emotional connection between humans and animals is a fascinating one to me, and no scientific study will ever be able to fully explain the bonds we often forge with our pets.
As I sit in our home and see our Great Dane resting comfortably in his chair just off the dining room, I sometimes shake my head in wonder and amazement. Here is an animal that weighs well over 100-pounds, a potentially ferocious canine strong enough to rip or bite me, my wife or our boys to oblivion, and yet there he sits silently and peacefully, co-mingling as a “member” of the family.
Dinner preparation often gets his attention and he’ll lie on the floor in full view of the kitchen, his eyes fixated on the center island where food is being prepared. As we eat, he likes to ramble up to the table and lay his head in a lap, all the while gazing upward in hope of even a measly leftover, which the boys usually slip him on the sly.
Clearly, the domestication of dogs has been a process, and science has played a critical role in the development of beloved breeds. But there’s a tendency these days to reduce mysteries of the unknown to evolution, a term so broad and vague that it elicits new mysteries of its own.
The eyes of dogs and a canine’s ability to communicate with them falls into this category. In fact, while complimenting the creativeness of the recent research, some scientists suggest the findings are limited and possibly an “indirect effect of other changes rather than a specific response to human influence.”
In short, maybe it has very little to do with facial muscles and something to do with everything else.
The late actress Audrey Hepburn once called eyes the “doorway to the heart”, and the poet Henry David Thoreau referred to them as the “jewel of the body.” Thoreau and Hepburn were talking about human eyes, of course, and biologically there is a difference.
Veterinarians will tell you that dogs can see better at night than humans because their retinas are “rod-dominant” while our eyes are “cone-dominant” allowing us to see bright lights and colors more easily.
But as our dog Shadow stares longingly up at us each day, seemingly watching our every move, it’s occurred to me that maybe his eyes have something to teach us beyond his begging posture.
In an era of a thousand distractions, my dog’s laser focus is a reminder that it can be helpful to concentrate on one thing at a time, especially the most important priorities of all, like my relationship with my wife and children. Instead of looking down at my phone or tablet, I should be looking up and into their eyes that are looking back at me.
Growing up, my mom and dad drilled home the importance of making eye contact during conversations with people -- an intimidating prospect for a kid. Conversations with my dog are one-sided, of course, but he never seems to break eye contact with me, especially when I’m holding a biscuit.
Maintaining healthy eye contact is a critical component of success in life. A person with “shifty” or “empty” eyes doesn’t do much to engender warmth or confidence amidst a conversation or business transaction.
We were forced to put our first Great Dane, Shep, to sleep after he fell off his couch in the middle of the night, paralyzing his back legs. Wrapped in blankets for the ride to the vet, he looked back silently at my wife, who had to stay behind because of a sleeping child.
Shep’s once sparkling and bouncing eyes had dulled. He looked calmly and peacefully up at Julie. “He knows,” Julie said through her own tears. “He knows.”
I didn’t know how he knew, but I didn’t disagree with her. A few minutes later, I had the chance to hold him when he closed his eyes for the last time.
Several years ago, a study found that oxytocin -- otherwise known as the miraculous “bonding hormone” -- increases in both humans and dogs when the two exchange glances with one another.
Man’s best friend, indeed.