Gazing: How and why my dog Haley and I help each other

That special gaze of Jim and Karen Russell's dog Haley. (Jim Russell photo)

That special gaze of Jim and Karen Russell’s dog Haley. (Jim Russell photo)

 

By Jim Russell
Empire Press Correspondent

My dog Haley has Karen and me locked into a one- to two-mile morning walk that makes all of us feel better.

Rain, sleet, snow, cold, heat, wind or smoke are unacceptable excuses because we’ve been through all of them.

And I love it — even before we start and even more after we’re done.

I’ve wondered why. It turns out there is a medical reason that makes it more marvelously mysterious and it’s linked to our mutual gazing.

Animal behavioral scientists have discovered when we gaze into each other’s eyes our brains get increased levels of oxytocin. “Oxytocin (is) a hormone that plays a role in maternal bonding, trust and altruism,” according to an April 2015 article “How dogs stole our hearts,” published on sciencemag.org.

Can this experience truly come from a 14-pound brown and white beagle/terrier mix we bought from a rescue mission in 2011? I’d heard people with heart problems like I have heal faster with a pet dog. It’s working for me.

Haley’s excitement starts when she watches me head to the bedroom after breakfast. She jumps off the living room couch and charges onto our bed, where she spins around to lie down. She fixes her gaze on me and licks her snout as she ducks her head while whirling her tail around her rump.

The sciencemag.org article goes on to say, “Mutual gazing had a profound effect on both the dogs and their owners. Of the duos (dogs and humans) that had spent the greatest amount of time looking into each other’s eyes, both male and female dogs experienced a 130 percent rise in oxytocin levels, and both male and female owners a 300 percent increase.”

When I look at Haley, she’s watching my eyes and instantly her tail whips faster, her tongue flicks rapidly and her head bobs up and down quicker. That may explain why I’m feeling peppier getting dressed.

Besides, probably no other time during this day will I be so encouraged, so rewarded to complete a simple task.

Haley jumps off the bed and runs back and forth to the back door. She charges out underneath the rising garage door into whatever weather assaults her.

She won’t go into that same weather at night when I open the door for her to make a last pit stop, but before a morning walk, no problem.

I’m not ready to start and she knows it. When I bend over to tie my long shoelaces into double knots around the grommets of my boots, she hits her peak impatience. She zooms back to stick her nose into my knot-tying to lick my fumbling, exposed hands and face. I can’t discourage her. I muddle through.

I love it.

This unfathomably immense cosmos allows a 14-pound, four-legged mammal to bond with a 160-pound bimodal mammal — and make me feel marvelous before exercising and even better afterward. Science explains it’s because we’re increasing each other’s oxytocin levels by gazing into each other’s eyes.

That makes it feel more mysteriously miraculous for which I daily thank a divine presence.