BRIEF: Like Dogs, Dingoes Make Eye Contact With Familiar Humans

Scientists studied dingoes to understand the development of social bonds between humans and dogs.
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Kimberly Hickok, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Domesticated dogs are exceptionally willing to make eye contact with humans, gazing into our eyes far more than wolves do. Now, researchers have found that dingoes, wild dogs native to Australia, make eye contact with familiar humans as often as domesticated dogs do. It just doesn't last as long, according to a new study in the journal Animal Behaviour. This suggests that the tendency for dogs to make eye contact with humans likely developed early in domestication.

When a domesticated dog makes eye contact with a human, both experience an increase in oxytocin, a hormone that further encourages social bonding. This contrasts with previous research indicating that wolves raised by humans don’t experience an oxytocin response and don’t make eye contact with their owners the way dogs do.

But dingoes share a more recent ancestor with dogs than with wolves, which can help scientists learn when specific behaviors, like human-dog eye contact, evolved.

At the Dingo Discovery Centre in Victoria, Australia, 23 dingoes each spent time privately interacting with one of their handlers, while researchers watched and made note of eye contact between the dingo and the handler. The researchers compared their observations with those of a previous study that compared eye contact between humans and dogs, with that of humans and wolves.

Dingoes made eye contact with their handler just as frequently as dogs did which was about twice as often as wolves did. The duration of the dingoes' average eye contact with humans was also in the middle -- longer than that of the wolves, but shorter than that of the dogs.Touching or talking to the dingoes didn’t seem to change how often or how long they made eye contact with their handler.

Since dingoes make eye contact more similarly to dogs compared to wolves, the scientists conclude that this behavior probably evolved very early in domestication. The authors suggest this indicates that eye contact was an initial evolutionary step towards the development of social bonds between humans and dogs.

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Kimberly Hickok is a science writer based in Santa Cruz, California. Follow her on Twitter @kimdhickok.