Why your pup looks at you (it’s not just to beg for a treat)

French bulldogLast Christmas, as I was patting my sister’s little female French bulldog, I found myself thinking how relaxing it felt – well, apart from the slightly itchy eyes. At some point, the dog tilted her head towards me, and we embarked on some sort of staring contest. As the mutual gaze prolonged, I started wondering: What could be going through her mind? Was she thinking about something? Why was she keeping her big but oh-so-cute bulgy eyes fixed on mine?

The interactions between humans and dogs are rather particular, with a level of social bonding and emotional engagement unusual for members of two different species. When compared with wolves, dogs’ closest relatives, and great apes, humans’ closest relatives, dogs appear much more skilled at recognizing and using social cues such as gesture or gaze direction to cooperatively interact with humans, even already as puppies.

But it’s not just that. Why is it that we feel genuinely attached to dogs? What are the biological mechanisms underlying the friendship and love we come to develop towards them? Continue reading