Most dog lovers get a puppy high whenever they gaze into the eyes of their adorable pets. And guess what…there’s a scientific explanation for why!
According to scientists, whenever dog owners look into their pets’ eyes their oxytocin levels go up and vice versa. This same oxytocin spike has been seen in mothers and their newborn babies. How and when dogs evolved to have the same ability to trigger the release of oxytocin in humans as children is a mystery. But the fact that this happens is pretty darn cool, and perhaps one of the things that help bond our beloved doggies to us further, as a companion species.
Oxytocin is also known as the “love hormone,” is a chemical that induces various actions and reactions in humans, like reducing stress, facilitating childbirth, breastfeeding, and solidifying relationships. In mammals, it is known to help the parent bond with their offspring.
Mothers and babies experience an increase in oxytocin during breastfeeding. They will likely spend hours looking at each other during the process, which results in the consistent release of oxytocin. Many say that this is biologically something that compels our species to protect our young. It is the young’s defense mechanism against helplessness, as it helps ensure the humans (parents/mother) around them pay attention and care for them. And…enjoy doing so.
What’s fascinating about domestic dogs today producing this effect is that ancestrally dogs and wolves don’t typically utilize eye contact to bond. This has prompted some scientists to wonder what dogs get when they gaze at their owners. Who knows, maybe they learned something from human babies?
A study co-authored by Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University’s Companion Animal Research Lab in Japan, found that dogs also reap benefits from effectively looking into the eyes of their owners, beyond increasing the likelihood that their “caregiver” will continue to provide them with the care they need to survive and thrive.
Since direct eye contact among dogs often leads to aggression, Kikusui wondered why dogs have no problems with eye contact with humans. The researcher and his colleagues – Miho Nahasawa, Shouhue Mitsui, Shiori En – had 30 participants come to their lab with their pets. They even found some participants who brought pet wolves instead of dogs.
Urine was collected from both human and canine participants before the first experiment was conducted. The researchers then asked the owners to interact with their pets for half an hour. As expected, the owners petted, played and talked to their pets and looked at each other’s eyes for several minutes. The wolves didn’t make much eye contact with their owners. Urine samples were taken again after the experiment.
The result showed that looking into each other’s eyes had a positive effect on both humans and their dogs. Regardless of the sex, the human participants experienced a 300% rise in oxytocin levels while the dogs saw a 130% increase. However, no discernible increase in oxytocin levels was found in any of the owner-wolf tandems.
The second experiment proceeded in much the same way, except that the dogs’ noses were sprayed with oxytocin before they interacted with their owners. Those with pet wolves didn’t participate in this experiment. The results were similar as well – female dogs spent about 150% more time looking into their owners’ eyes, with the humans again experiencing a 300% rise in their oxytocin levels. Interestingly, the oxytocin spray showed no effect in male dogs. The researchers posited that this could be due to the fact that oxytocin affected females more, particularly during childbirth and lactation.
The results of the two experiments indicate that the interaction between humans and their dogs generate the same type of chemical process (sensation) that occurs between mothers and their babies. This response might explain why dog owners develop a close relationship with their pets and are motivated to care for them often (particularly today) like they were their own children.
Kikusui also theorized that the positive emotions generated by oxytocin might have played a major role in how dogs were domesticated. The researcher posited that as some wolves started to evolve into dogs, those that were able to bond with humans would have received care and protection, ensuring its survival. Likewise, humans might have evolved as well, developing the ability to reciprocate and adapt their maternal instincts to other species. And as oxytocin also lessens tempers feelings of anxiety, the introduction of pets in ancient times also means that stress levels went down, resulting in improved health.
Other researchers, like Jessica Oliva of Melbourne, Australia’s Monash University, also believes that oxytocin played a big role in dog domestication. However, she also pointed out that gazing into their owner’s eyes aren’t the only actions associated with good feelings. Our pets most likely associated the same emotions to food and playing, as both are actions that also boost oxytocin levels. So while some dog owners might consider their pets as their babies, dogs don’t necessarily look at us as their parents.
Some researchers, like neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky from Stanford University, admits that while the dog-human bond is strange and unique, it also highlights the power and versatility of oxytocin.
If the research stands the test of time and follow-up studies, then it can be used to further strengthen the importance of the using dogs as a way to assist individuals with autism or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also to highlight the use of oxytocin in the treatment of various neuropsychological issues.
Animal cognition researchers Evan L. MacLean and Brian Hare from Duke University gave an example in an essay they wrote about how service dogs, which are known for developing strong bonds with their handlers, are showing that they can also be helpful in the role of therapy dogs. The researchers also added that it’s no coincidence that supplemental or higher oxytocin levels have shown to have reduced anxiety in patients being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder as well as boosting the social skills of people on the spectrum for autism.
MacLean and Hare concluded that more studies should be done on the subject, with a bigger diversity of dog breeds and people needed to participate in order to confirm if pets and service animals can also be used as lovable, cute and furry dispensers of oxytocin.
There is a ton of new research being conducted on topics like this, and we couldn’t be happier. The story of how dogs made the shift about 15,000 years ago toward domestication is complicated and fascinating, and this revelation about oxytocin being released in humans from dog stares is just one piece of the puzzle in understanding the full picture of our modern day dogs came to exist as they do. Capable of what they are capable of, like…giving us a puppy high.
While it will take years before it’s definitively proven that pets can aid in boosting oxytocin levels and consequently, the health of various individuals, there’s no harm in making sure that we spend time with our dogs and gazing into their eyes.