Want Eye Contact With Your Dog? These 4 Factors Play a Role

Head shape and playfulness can play a part, study finds.

woman petting dog
Short-nosed dogs are more likely to make eye contact, study finds.

LWA/Dann Tardif / Getty Images

How much time does your dog spend looking into your eyes? It could depend on the shape of their head, among other factors.

Making eye contact is an important part of human relationships and it can be key in person-canine bonding too. But all dogs aren’t equal when it comes to eye gazing, finds a new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Eye contact is an important non-verbal signal in humans. We use it in conversations to show that we are paying attention to each other," study first author Zsófia Bognár, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, tells Treehugger. "Also, the oxytocin levels in both parties rise, which plays a role in the development of social bonding."

This social connection is easily observed when a bond is formed between a mother and a baby, she points out.

But eye contact is not so important for dog relationships. They don’t look into each other’s eyes very often, and when they do, it’s antagonistic and challenging behavior.

“Dogs tend to make eye contact with humans, and research found that oxytocin levels also rose in both parties when owners and dogs formed eye contact,” Bognár says. “It is also known that dogs do not behave the same, differences can be found between them.” 

Earlier studies found that shorter-headed dogs were more successful at following pointing gestures from humans and watched pictures of faces for longer periods of time.

Snub-nosed dogs have a more pronounced area in the retina of the eye responsible for central vision, so they can better respond to things happening right in front of them. Longer-nosed dogs have a more panoramic vision, so they’re more easily distracted by things going on all around them.

The researchers decided to see how head shape and other factors also influenced eye contact.

Why Head Shape Matters

Researchers worked with 130 family dogs for the study. First, they measured the length and width of their heads to determine what’s called the cephalic index—the ratio of the maximum length and width of the head.

  • Short-headed or brachycephalic dog breeds include boxers, bulldogs, and pugs. 
  • Long-headed or dolichocephalic dog breeds include greyhounds, Great Danes, and German shepherds.
  • Medium-headed or mesocephalic dog breeds include Labrador retrievers, Cocker spaniels, and border collies.

Then, on to the testing.

First, the experimenter would call the dog’s name and reward the dog with a treat. Then the experimenter would stay silent and motionless, waiting for the dog to establish eye contact. They then rewarded the dog with a treat each time eye contact was made.

The experiment ended after five minutes or after 15 episodes of eye contact were made. During this test, the dog’s owner remained in the room (silent, motionless, and not looking at the dog) so the dog wouldn’t be stressed due to separation.

They measured how many times the dog made eye contact as well as how much time elapsed between eating the treat and the next time the dog made eye contact. The team found that the shorter the dog’s nose, the more quickly it made eye contact with the researcher.

“We assumed that due to this, snub-nosed dogs could focus their attention better to their communication partner because other visual stimuli coming from the periphery could disturb them less,” Bognár says.

But there’s also the chance that pugs, bulldogs, and other similar dogs just get more of a chance to interact with people because of the baby-like way they look.

“We couldn't exclude the possibility that these dogs have more opportunity to learn to engage with humans and make eye contact with them," Bognár says. "Because humans have a preference for ‘baby schema’ features, and the characteristics of snub-nosed dogs’ heads are in accordance with these features, thus the owners of these dogs may pay more attention towards them and are more likely to engage in mutual gaze with their animals.”

Age, Playfulness, and Breed Characteristics

But the head shape wasn’t the only factor that came into play. Researchers found that a dog’s age, playfulness, and general cooperative nature due to breed characteristics all played a role in how much eye contact they made with the experimenter.

They found dogs that were originally bred to take visual cues made more eye contact. For example, herding dogs who follow directions from the owner to work livestock, are “visually cooperative” breeds that are more likely to make eye contact. Sled dogs that run in front of a musher or dachshunds that are bred to chase prey underground are “visually non-cooperative” breeds that rely on vocal cues and don’t have to see their owners.

Interestingly, dogs that were mixed breeds performed just as well as cooperative breeds. About 70% of the mixed breed dogs in the study were adopted from a shelter. Maybe their eagerness to make eye contact helped get them adopted in the first place, the researchers suggest.

The researchers also found that older dogs made less eye contact. They had a harder time controlling their attention and were slower switching from the treat to the experimenter.

A dog’s playfulness was another factor that impacted eye contact. To measure a dog’s playfulness, the off-leash dog was in a room with the owner. The experimenter walked in with a ball and a rope and offered them to the dog. If the dog chose one, they played with the toy for a minute. If the dog didn’t choose a toy, the experimenter tried to initiate a social interaction.

A dog was given a high playfulness score if it played enthusiastically with the experimenter, brought the ball back at least once, or tugged on the rope. It was given a low playfulness score if it didn’t touch the toys, ran after the ball but didn’t bring it back, or took the rope but didn’t tug on it. Researchers found that dogs with high playfulness were quicker to establish eye contact than dogs with low playfulness.

The research uncovers a key understanding of what impacts dog-person eye contact, which can affect canine-human communication.

“Eye contact can help dogs to decide whether the message/command what the human says/shows are directed to them. They are more likely to execute a command if the human looks at them than shows its back or looks at another human/dog,” Bognár says.

“Dogs also use their gaze to communicate with humans, for example, gaze alternation can be a way to direct humans’ attention to different objects like an unreachable piece of food or a ball," adds Bognár. "And it can also play a role in social bonding through oxytocin hormone.”

View Article Sources
  1. Bognár, Zsófia, et al. "Shorter Headed Dogs, Visually Cooperative Breeds, Younger and Playful Dogs form Eye Contact Faster with an Unfamiliar Human." Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-88702-w

  2. Kaminski, Juliane, et al. "How Dogs Know when Communication is Intended for Them." Developmental Science, vol. 15, no. 2, 2011, pp. 222-232, doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01120.x