In November 2010, PBS debuted a television episode in the acclaimed science series NOVA called “Dogs Decoded.” Exciting research into canine capabilities and the human-dog bond were explored, providing evidence of what has caused something of a global revolution over the last decade in our understanding of the dogs in our lives. Humans and dogs actually communicate with each other in such profound ways that scientists are now beginning to find evidence that without dogs, we might not even be here.
As groomers, we have decided to make dogs our life’s work. What we can learn from some of these scientific studies can transform the rapport we have with our client dogs on the table and in the tub—if we will just take a few minutes to look them in the eyes.
It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul. It is exciting to receive confirmation from the scientific community that this is truly the case with dogs. Professor Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln in England said, “What makes our relationships so special is the dog’s ability to be able to read our emotions so effectively.”
Research by leading scientists is widely available to view online and is well worth looking into for ways we groomers can improve our work with dogs.
Of all the members of the biological canid family—wolves, foxes, coyotes, jackals, etc.—only dogs make eye contact directly with humans. This feature, unique to the dog, was clearly pivotal in their domestication and our long and close interspecies relationship.
Our human faces are somewhat uneven and different on each side. Research has shown that generally the right hemisphere of our face communicates slight differences than the left side. Humans also read each other’s expressions. When looking at someone else’s face, we look generally from the left side first, focusing primarily on the right side of a person’s face. Now we know that dogs look at these kinds of subtle differences as well.
Dr. Zsófia Bognár from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary said, “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.”
Her study went on to show how even the skull shape of the dog affects how we read each other’s faces. Since humans show a marked preference for dogs with features that resemble human infants, Dr. Bognar’s work documented better eye-to-eye communication with brachycephalic breeds, perhaps only because of our own willingness to look at them longer.
The positive benefits of eye contact work with every dog every time. Japanese researchers led by Dr. Takefumi Kikusui, a pheromone expert, published in the April 2015 issue of the journal Science the fascinating discovery that eye contact between humans and dogs delivers to both species an oxytocin increase to the brain. Oxytocin, often called the love or bonding hormone, increases a sense of connectedness and wellbeing. Another long-known benefit of oxytocin is that new mothers who have just given birth receive a pain-reducing response when they hold their infants and look at them.
Now that we know beyond a doubt that dogs and humans both receive this dramatic health benefit from looking into each other’s eyes, groomers have powerful reasons to add a minute or two to each groom in order to take advantage of the benefits of this research.
Dr. Corsin Muller’s research in Vienna, Austria made international headlines when he published his team’s research in the March 2015 issue of Current Biology using sophisticated computer screens and images of human faces, partial or total, to track the eye movements of a dog as they read our facial expressions. He demonstrated conclusively that dogs read our eye and facial muscles along the “T-Zone” across and down the center of our faces.
Smiles and pleasant eye contact caused the dogs to relax and show positive emotion. Angry, worried or stressful human faces clearly upset the dogs. Subsequent research has been able to confirm these extraordinary discoveries, such as locating exactly which muscles in our faces were being tracked by dogs’ perceptive reading of our emotions, especially around our eyes.
Other studies have found that the “puppy-dog eyes” that tug at our hearts have likely been bred into dogs’ facial muscles over the millennia by human selection because of the way dogs’ eye movements increase our sense of bonding with them.
When you do make eye contact with a dog, even if it is a repeat client you know well, it is important that with each visit your emotional state communicates warmth, acceptance and non-threatening affection. We don’t want to stare down a dog with dominance and sternness. This can actually cause discomfort and problems for the dog. Don’t let the eye contact you make with the dog be expressed as, “I am in charge, you had better behave.”
Instead, greet the dog on the table or in the tub. Briefly drop your mask for a minute, if you are masked. Smile at the dog and make eye contact. Look them gently in the eyes with warmth, affection and a kindly manner. Say their name. Give them a minute to allow them to read the muscles around your facial T-Zone (across the brows and from eye to eye, down the center of your face.) Soften your expression and let them know they can trust you.
Taking just these few seconds at the start of the groom to let the dogs read your gentle intent and your trustworthiness can change the entire grooming experience for the dog and for you. ✂️