You know how great it feels when you gaze lovingly at your pooch, and your pooch returns that adoring gaze right back atcha?
Of course you do.
That’s because when we exchange the look of love with our dogs, the oxytocin levels in both of us shoot up. Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone that rises when we’re in contact with a loved one, such as when a mother bonds with her baby.
This not-very-surprising discovery by researchers in Japan was published yesterday in the journal Science.
Participating in the study were 30 people and their dogs, including Dachshunds, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, Miniature Schnauzers, a Jack Russell Terrier and two mixed breeds. Five wolves and their owners also participated.
The researchers found that people who gazed at their dogs had higher concentrations of oxytocin in their urine. The dogs who gazed at humans — but, interestingly, not the wolves, for whom eye contact is perceived as a threat — also had higher oxytocin levels. This creates a “positive loop” much like that experienced between human mothers and their infants.
When oxytocin was inhaled by the dogs, they were more likely to want to gaze at the humans.
The study’s authors believe the positive loop may have supported the development of bonding between people and dogs “by engaging common modes of communicating social attachment.”
Dogs are more skillful than wolves (and chimpanzees) at using human social communicative behaviors, according to the researchers. “More specifically, dogs are able to use mutual gaze as a communication tool in the context of needs of affiliative help from others,” they wrote.
Steve Chang, an assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology at Yale, told the New York Times the study was unique in that it “demonstrates that oxytocin can boost social gaze interaction between two very different species.”
Chang said that through domestication, humans began seeing dogs as social partners, and vice versa. “In a way, domesticated dogs could hijack our social circuits, and we can hijack their social circuits,” he told the Times.
In a commentary that was also published in Science yesterday, Evan L. MacLean and Brian Hare noted the study suggests our dogs may be taking advantage of our parental sensitivities “to generate feelings of social reward and caretaking behavior.”
MacLean and Hare believe the study could have far-reaching implications. “For example, the benefits of assistance dogs for individuals with autism or post-traumatic stress disorder — conditions for which oxytocin is currently being used as an experimental treatment — may arise partly through these social pathways,” they wrote.
“In the meantime, [the study] provided more evidence that when your dog is staring at you, she may not just be after your sandwich.”
Photo credit: normanack