That Soulful (and Loving) Gaze

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in social bonding, as implied by some of its nicknames: the love hormone, cuddle chemical, or bliss hormone. It’s also something that dogs and humans share.

Studies published in 2009 found that, when dogs gazed at their owners — you know, that adoring gaze that says, “feed me; I’m yours,” owners had more oxytocin in their urine. This correlates with feeling affection and social connection.

You can see where this is going, right? They gaze at us, we interpret it as adoration, we respond by feeling loved and happy. This works well for the dog. For us, too; real or not, we have that great “someone loves me” feeling.

But there’s more to this story. A later study looked at more variables. For example, the oxytocin in dogs’ urine. Did they get the same emotional lift out of the exchange of adoring gazes? Also whether interaction with the humans affected oxytocin in either humans or dogs.

This is where things get interesting.

A note: In both studies, dogs and wolves were used, as a way to determine whether this was just a canine thing, or whether it really has to do with the dog-human relationship.

First, the study looked at the effects if the person and dog exchanged gazes only, versus when the person also interacted with the dog, talking to her or petting her. No one was given oxytocin in this study; dogs’ and humans’ levels were measured before and after. The dogs and owners who spent the longest time gazing and interacting with each other had significant increases in their oxytocin levels — the dogs’ levels as well as the people’s. The dogs like the attention — even you, Jana! The gaze-only dogs and the shorter-gazing couples had small or no increases. Neither did the wolves.

A variation of the study had researchers administer oxytocin to some of the dogs to see whether the amount of oxytocin in their bodies made a difference. Then, the dogs and humans were allowed to gaze at each other, but the humans were not allowed to intentionally interact. If the dogs touched the humans, it was noted, but the humans were not allowed to respond by petting or talking to the dog.

So, was there a change in the dogs’ behavior if they had higher (administered) oxytocin? There was — but only for female dogs. With more oxytocin, they gazed at their humans for a significantly longer time; the length of their gaze at a stranger wasn’t affected. Male dogs actually gazed at their owners longer if they had not received oxytocin. The wolves didn’t really gaze at the people.

Not to knock boy dogs, but … maybe they’re just not that into you.

Seriously, what this all means — according to the researchers, anyhow — is that a mutually reinforcing loop occurs (particularly with girl dogs). They gaze at us, we look back, babble nonsense at them, rub their bellies … Hmmm, how do they gaze at us while we’re rubbing their bellies? OK, we stroke their long, soft ears and gaze back into their eyes. And everyone feels all warm and mushy and loved, so the girls keep staring at us, to keep this good thing going. More gazing, more oxytocin, so more and longer gazing, and the cycle continues.

Gazing is important in human social bonding and communication, starting when babies nurse. Lots of research shows that dogs use humans’ gaze as communication — and use their own gaze to communicate with us. And, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, dogs choose to hang out with us. All that, to me, adds up to a mutual bond that is very rewarding to all of us, including the dogs. That, and they need someone with working thumbs around to get access to their dinner.

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words

CHaserAmazing dog. Amazing and super-friendly author. I got in touch w/Dr. Pilley after reading the book (and his research papers) and he did a Skype conversation with a class I was teaching on dog-human communication. He is one in a million, as is Chaser. He is such a great example of positive training that respects a dog and her abilities… and he is a fantastic teacher as well.
No one is surprised to hear that a border collie is intelligent and learns easily. But Chaser has gone far beyond what any other dog has been documented to learn in terms of human language comprehension. Dr. Pilley set out to teach her as many words as he could — names of objects — after reading the dismissive comments that greeted publications describing the accomplishments of Rico, a border collie in Germany who learned several hundred words. Dr. Pilley analyzed the linguists’ and other academics’ critiques of the training and testing of Rico — and set out to train his dog in a way that addressed all of their objections. And he accomplished his goal. (An interesting chapter in the book describes the resistance he faced when attempting to publish his initial results.) The opposition to admitting that any creature but humans can use language is still deeply entrenched.
But it’s also dead wrong. Chaser truly does understand human language. She learned and retains the names of more than a thousand items. She has demonstrated her ability to categorize them, grouping round bouncy things into the “ball” category and flat flying things into the “Frisbee” category, for example. And, like most dogs, she clearly distinguishes the category of “my toys” from “things in the house that I’d like to chew but am not allowed to chew.”
But Dr. Pilley realized that he had not pushed the boundaries of Chaser’s abilities. So, they tackled grammar next. Chaser understands the concepts of subject, verb, object — and indirect object. As an editor and college instructor, I have to point out that many writers and college students do not reach Chaser’s level of grammatical knowledge.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Pilley describes his initial attempts to teach Chaser to imitate long, complex strings of behaviors. His description inspired me to try simple imitation games with my dogs, which have been fun and very funny.
The best part about this book though, is its constant message: Keep training fun and rewarding for the dog; make it a game; play to your dog’s strengths and preferences and, most important, make sure she has time do play and engage in her favorite activities. For Chaser, that means regular opportunities to herd sheep at a near

What Are Dogs Responding To?

Photo by Christina Phelps
Photo by Christina Phelps

A tall, elderly gray mixed-breed is the oldest Cali. Two young Labs, a Border Collie mix, a spaniel, another mix. Any of at least a alf-dozen dogs could come running when I call Cali at our neighborhood dog run. I never would have named her Cali if I had known how trendy the name was; it seems to be especially popular in our Petaluma, Calif., neighborhood.
But they don’t come. Each Cali (or Callie or Kali) responds to her own mom — including (usually) my Cali. And they ignore the calls of the other Cali moms. So, what are they responding to?
Some dog trainers argue that dogs do not understand words at all. They respond to a mixture of sounds and body language cues that we send them, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously. Others, including the apparently wise and wonderful Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppy raiser whose dog is the TODAY Show’s newest star, know that dogs can and do recognize their own names and “understand” lots of words. On one of his first appearances, Wrangler, the TODAY Show puppy, walked over to Saxon, the trainer and sat when she called him. He had learned his name in less than a day.
Dogs do learn their names, and they learn associations with other words as well. Some, like “sit” and “down,” are associations we teach them; others, like “cookie” and “walk,” they often manage to learn on their own.
Dogs are not as focused on words as people. They notice our tone and pick up on the emotion behind our words. They are very tuned in to our body language, too. I’m sure that all those Calis hear me calling — and know that it’s perfectly fine to ignore me. “Not my mom,” they might think as they decide to ignore the sound of their name being called.
If your words are not getting the desired response from your dog, don’t just repeat the words. Think about the whole message you are sending and see if changing your posture, adding a gesture, or adding some happiness and enthusiasm to your tone of voice helps you get a better response.
And at the dog park, while your dog is most likely keeping track of where you are, his responses might not be as speedy as you might like. There is also a lot going on there, and you’re not likely to be more compelling than his buddies, the birds, the balls, and the squirrels. It’s a good idea to practice recalls in less distracting environments until you’re sure he’s got it, then let your dog have fun with his buddies, calling him to you only when really necessary.

If Cali Were Brian Hare’s Dog …

photo 4If Cali were Brian Hare’s dog, or rather, if she had been his dog years ago when he first started studying human-animal communication and animal cognition, there would likely be no Duke Canine Cognition Center, no Dognition …
I am not saying that Cali is not intelligent (far from it!). Before I get into that, though, some background:
In Brian Hare’s (wonderful) book The Genius of Dogs, he tells the story of how his interest in canine cognition came to be. Hare, now a leading researcher and innovator in canine cognition, was studying primates. As a college student, Hare participated in a study that investigated whether bonobos and chimpanzees understand the intention behind gestural communication. The chimps flunked the test. But, while conducting this research, Hare commented to his professor that his dog could do that. And history was made.
Hare and his professor found that dogs, even very young puppies, understand the communication intended by gestures such as pointing. Chimps must be taught, and, even then, rarely generalize. Wolves don’t do as well as dogs, even if they’ve been raised by humans.
In the first test that Hare did with his dog, Oreo, Hare threw three balls into a pond. After Oreo had found the first one, Hare pointed to the second, then the third. Oreo effortlessly located the balls by following the pointing.
Simple, right? Your dog can do that, I bet. Most dogs can. Jana can. Alberta can. Cali? Not so much.
Cali loves to play ball. She gets very excited when we’re playing, and often starts running out in anticipation of my next throw. She gets so excited that she neglects to keep her eye on the ball … and often ends up with no idea where the ball landed.
So, comfortable in the knowledge that dogs can do this, I point. And she invariably runs off … in a completely different direction. We play the “hot, cold” game. I pretend to throw the ball again, waving the Chuckit in the correct direction. To her credit — and showing considerable intelligence — Cali is never fooled by this gesture. I point some more. I walk in the right direction. I do everything except point a neon arrow at the ball.
Meanwhile, Cali continues running huge loops in completely wrong directions. Eventually, she ends up in the right section of the field and, using her excellent nose, locates the ball. She hardly ever loses her ball. But she just doesn’t get the pointing thing.
According to the studies I’ve read, Cali performs about as well as an unsocialized wolf. So what does this mean?
Aside from the obvious — that if Hare’s dog had performed as dismally as Cali, the science of canine cognition would have never been born — it means that Cali lacks this particular type of social intelligence.
She brims over with other types of social intelligence, though: She is extremely empathetic and affectionate; she is overwhelmingly friendly and nonjudgmental; and she is playful and happy. She also has a great memory and can use her nose to find hidden items in seconds flat (unless the item is a tennis ball nestled in the grass, of course).
The point is that dogs, like people, have different types of intelligence. Each individual excels at some things while faring more poorly at other skills. And that’s just fine.