The close bond dog owners share with their pet is unique, and research has shown that both humans and canines benefit from positive interactions. Now a new study has provided scientists with some surprising findings about the power of a dog’s gaze, which also helps explain why the bond between humans and dogs is so tight.
The human/canine bond is a symbiotic relationship that benefits both species. In many households, dogs are considered treasured members of the family. Playing with, training, petting and grooming your pet helps create an unshakable bond. Researchers know we experience beneficial physiological and psychological changes in the body when interacting with dogs, and a recent study found that both humans and canines have a spike in oxytocin levels when looking into each other’s eyes.
Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone” and is linked to the emotional bond between mother and baby. It’s also what bonds other mammals that mate for life, such as wolves, swans, beavers and bald eagles. The hormone helps create a powerful social attachment of affection, and in the case of humans and dogs, it’s fueled by a gaze.
Japanese researchers ran a series of experiments to find out if the hormone was the reason why many dog owners have a parent-like response to their dog. This study is the first to show there is an interspecies affection between humans and dogs generated by an oxytocin-positive loop initiated when we gaze into each other’s eyes. Further, it’s possible the eye to eye communication co-evolved over thousands of years as a natural way for humans and dogs to communicate social attachment with one another.
In one experiment, researchers allowed 30 dogs of both sexes to roam freely in a room with their owners for 30 minutes. Two dogs were mixed breeds and the rest were purebred. Canines and owners with increased oxytocin levels in their urine are the ones that spent more time gazing into each other’s eyes, which suggests that an oxytocin feedback loop exists. A dog’s gaze causes his owner’s brain to produce more oxytocin and create a positive interaction from the owner with their dog, which in turn causes a release of more oxytocin in the brain of the canine. There was no noticeable difference in hormone levels when comparing the different breeds or if the dog was female or male.
In a different experiment, the dogs were given an oxytocin or saline nasal spray. This time each dog was put in a room with his/her owner and two unfamiliar people. Female dogs that received the oxytocin spray spent a longer time gazing at their owners than the canines given the saline solution, and the oxytocin levels of the owners of the dogs also had increased levels. However, male dogs receiving an additional dose of oxytocin didn’t spend more time gazing at their owner. Researchers can’t explain why male dogs responded differently from the females, but they believe it’s possible the male dogs had an increased awareness of the strangers in the room and were more cautious and alert.
The research team conducted the same tests with wolves and the humans that raised and interacted with them. There was no increase in oxytocin levels in the wolves or the humans, and no feedback loop was established between them. Wolves typically avoid direct eye contact and perceive it as a threat. Because of the absence of an oxytocin loop between wolves and people who raised them, researchers believe canines evolved during the domestication process to use the same system human mothers use when bonding with their newborn child. Researchers suggested it’s possible the strong connection many owners have with their dogs is comparable to the bonding between a parent and child because of the oxytocin feel-good loop we share when gazing into each other’s eyes.
Other canine experts point to the small selection of dogs used and think more research needs to be done to back up the data from this study.
The quote “The eyes are the window to the soul” has been attributed to different people over the years. According to this new study, the power of a dog’s gaze garners a loving and affectionate response from their owner and they get the same response from us. A feel-good gaze shared between two different species helps to bind us together as social partners.
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