The Eyes Have It

We’re babysitting a friend’s dog while she is out of the country, and as you can see, he has one blue eye and one brown. I’ve always found different color eyes on a dog a bit disorienting; I’m curious about how long it will take me to get used to it.

Question One: Do you have a dog that has different color eyes? How did/do you react to it?

Thinking about eye color got me thinking about the importance of eye contact in social relationships. We know quite a bit about it in human relationships, and are beginning to learn about it in interspecific ones (relationships between individuals of two species). For example, we know that prolonged eye contact between strangers, if  in a safe and relaxing environment, increases oxytocin and thus feelings of attachment.

As I write in a 2015 post:  . . . one can evaluate the level of maternal bonding by measuring the length of mutual gazing, and predict the amount of gazing based on maternal oxytocin levels. Gazing and oxytocin levels appear to exist in a “positive loop,” in which gazing increases oxytocin, and oxytocin increases gazing.

Did you get that last line? “Gazing increases oxytocin, and oxytocin increases gazing.” How cool is that? And, of course, we now know that oxytocin levels increase when owners make eye contact with their dog, IF the person reports high levels of satisfaction with their dog’s behavior.

An increase in oxytocin isn’t confined just to our species, however. Julie Hecht wrote in Scientific American about a study that showed its levels rise in dogs too after prolonged gazing into the eyes of their owners.

But there is a lot more about eyes and eye contact than that. How many times have trainers and behaviorists warned well-meaning dog lovers to not stare into an unfamiliar dog’s eyes? Humans greet strangers with direct eye contact and outstretched arms. They tend to greet unfamiliar dogs the same way, which is so far beyond rude in canine society that if dogs could write blogs that’s all they’d complain about. (And not being allowed to eat cat poop. And, okay, there would be more.)

And then there’s the whole “fake eye” problem, in which we torture dogs by looking as though we are sporting huge eyes with extra-dilated pupils when we point camera lenses at them or put on sun glasses.

If you’ve never thought about how much information there is in a dilated pupil, check out this video of a kitten watching a horror movie:

And then, of course, there’s the opposite, or what is called a hard eye, in which a dog’s eyes go cold and still, and your heart stops and the primitive part of your brain screams, like the siren on a WWII submarine, DIVE DIVE!

It feels like I could keep writing about the information conveyed in the eyes of highly social mammals for days.  About how eyes can look relaxed or tense. Note the eyebrows on the dog below:

About the sideways look that dogs throw out every once in a while that I swear means they are laughing at us. But I’ll stop here, because Maggie just walked up to me, put her paw in my lap and looked deeply into my eyes when I turned my head to look at her. There is no mistaking the message her eyes conveyed. Stop dancing your paws on the clacky thing and come outside with me! It is cool and beautiful outside and there are toys to chase and sheep to herd and now NOW is the time. NOW, OH PLEASE NOW NOW NOW.”

Good on you Maggie, out we go.

But before we do, More questions for you (sorry Maggie): What about you and your dog’s eyes? Do you gaze into them for long periods of time? What information do you get from your dog’s eyes? Do you have a dog with different colored eyes? What do you think your dog would say about this issue if s/he could take over this conversation?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I never thought much about the green and gold colors of the Green Bay Packers until my first fall in Wisconsin. Yeah, it’s pretty much green and gold everywhere here.

Here’s a lovely patch of color in a nearby prairie. I’m so aware that the Time of No Color is coming. It’s the hardest part of winter for me. Oh wait, except for the ice.

Whatever it is like where you are, I hope you can savor some parts of it.