There’s a reason why love at first sight exists between people and bug-eyed canines like pugs and French Bulldogs. Like with human relationships, it’s all in the eye contact. But some dogs are able to engage it more easily than others.
Blame it on the size of their nose, a new study from Hungary says.
Research on 125 family dogs showed that shorter headed, snub-nosed dogs pay more attention to people, likely making them more social and easier to interact with, because of the anatomy of their eyes.
Pugs, boxers and French Bulldogs have more ganglion cells responsible for receiving visual information and fixating on objects in the center of their retinas, meaning they “can better respond to stimuli,” study lead author Zsófia Bognár, a Ph.D. student in the department of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, said in a statement.
The enhanced visuals leads to better eye contact with people, triggering a domino effect of better communication, cooperation and bonding between dog and owner, the researchers say. Past studies have shown that such mutual gazing raises levels of the “love hormone” called oxytocin in both parties.
On the other hand, long-nosed dogs, such as greyhounds, have more evenly distributed nerve cells in their retinas, meaning they may be distracted by stimuli from their peripheral or side vision when attempting to focus on what’s in front of them.
Other factors that may affect your ability to bond with your dog: age, personality and the ancient or contemporary reason they were bred, such as to herd livestock, pull sleds in the snow or simply snuggle on your lap.
The study was published April 29 in the journal Scientific Reports.
Short-nosed dogs may also spark the ‘cute response’
The dogs participated in 12 experiments that tested their social and eye contact abilities with strangers as their owners sat quietly in a nearby chair. The dogs were a median of 8 years old and included a mixture of mixed and pure breeds.
In one of the tests, the researchers measured how many times the dogs formed eye contact with the experimenter within five minutes by rewarding the dogs with pieces of sausage every time they locked eyes. Cameras connected to computers outside the experiment room recorded each test.
It turns out shorter-nosed dogs made faster eye contact with strangers. “It is likely that they see the human face more sharply because of their special retina, but it is also possible that their owners gaze at them more often as their facial features resemble a small child, a powerful cue for humans,” Bognár said.
It’s called the “baby schema effect,” the researchers noted, which refers to a set of facial features — such as large heads, round faces and large eyes —that spark “the so-called ‘cute response.’ ”
“Thus the owners of these dogs may pay more attention towards them and are more likely to engage in mutual gaze with their animals,” the researchers said in the study. “Therefore, these dogs may have more opportunity to learn, to engage with humans and make eye-contact with them.”
The team also looked into whether different breeds were more likely to engage in eye contact with people.
It found that dogs bred for “visually guided work” like shepherding cattle made eye contact with people faster than dogs bred for work like sledding that focuses on vocal cues.
And as expected, younger and more playful dogs were able to lock eye contact faster than older more reserved ones.
Cats share similar bonding abilities with their owners through eye contact. One study found that placing yourself in front of your cat, narrowing your eyes like you would in a relaxed smile, then closing them for a couple of seconds, mimicking a slow motion blink, is a form of positive emotional communication between cats and humans.
Next time you want to bond with your dog, just look into their eyes. And remember, if they aren’t reciprocating the love, it’s not that they don’t feel the same intimacy. Their noses may just be too long.