For those of us living close with dogs, we’ve long known that our ‘fur-babies’ really do love us as much as we love them – but now science has our back!
Oxytocin, aka the cuddle or love hormone, is secreted from the pituitary gland at the base of the brain when people (and it turns out dogs too) snuggle together or bond socially. Originally, the hormone was first recognized for its role in the birthing process and nursing, and was considered to promote mother-child bonding.
However, since then lots of studies have been conducted into its wider role, and it appears to be an equally important social factor for women, men and even other species in regards to bonding, trust and altruism.
Interestingly, a study found that oxytocin could even make men in relationships more loyal to their bonded partners. When given a spray of oxytocin they were found to stand further away from an attractive women than those not under the influence of the hormone, with no effect on single men – thus acting as a possible fidelity hormone. But back to dogs!
According to the Science magazine, mutual gaze has been found to play a huge factor in the release of oxytocin. In the same way that babies levels of oxytocin rise when their mother’s stare into their eyes, and vice versa, so do dogs. So if you’ve ever felt love when your pooch stares into your eyes – then you may well be right! Recent studies have shown that when dogs stare directly at us they activate this same release of the love hormone, while subsequently their owners experience an increase in oxytocin too. This may help explain why some dog owners believe their bonds with their canine family members are often just as strong as they have with their own children.
Between humans, gaze is considered very important in communication and understanding another’s intentions. However, for wolves staring into another’s eyes is seen as aggressive and threatening, and they will often avoid direct eye contact with humans – even when raised amongst us. Dogs have moved beyond this, to adapt and utilise this means of communication, specifically through the process of their domestication.
Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviourist from Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, brought this idea to light after conducting experiments on both his own dogs, and then 30 of his neighbour’s dogs alongside a few human-reared pet wolves.
The researchers collected urine from both dogs, and wolves, before and after 30 minutes of owner interaction in a room together. He found that frequently owners petted the animals and spoke with them. Dogs and owners would often stare at each other, even up to several minutes at a time. Wolves, however, did not.
Kikusui found conclusive results that showed that dogs and owners that spent more time gazing at each other, both male and female, showed a 130% rise in oxytocin levels. For the wolves, and also dogs that spent little to no time staring into the eyes of their owners, their oxytocin levels remained mostly unchanged.
This experiment was later replicated using cats. Results showed that after 10 minutes playing with their owners. Oxytocin levels rose by an average of 57.2% in dogs, but only 12% in cats. This could be an example of how much more successfully dogs have evolved alongside us than cats, which are still considered far less domesticated. Some may even argue that this shows that dogs love us more than cats do.
In another experiment, they gave dogs nasal sprays of oxytocin before interacting with their owners. Interesting, they found that female dogs spent 150% more time gazing at their owners (who in turn saw a 300% rise in their oxytocin levels). Nasal sprays had no effect on male dogs, possibly because of the more significant role oxytocin plays in female reproduction.
Kikusui believes that this this research is fundamental in our efforts towards understanding how domestication first occurred in dogs. It could be that the wolves that bonded more closely with humans were favoured, and thus protected. In time these wolves adapted their physiology and appearance in order to solidify this bond, while at the same time humans reciprocated by also adapting and extending their use of the love hormone to species beyond their own. Kikusui states that “there is a possibility that dogs cleverly and unknowingly utilized a natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child.” All in all, as ‘doggie parents’, I think we all know that our dogs really do love us!