There’s a reason that human mothers bond with their newborn children so quickly. This is because the process of pregnancy and birth releases various hormones, particularly oxytocin.
When oxytocin works on various parts of the body, it is responsible for causing contractions during labor, as well as allowing the mother to lactate and feed her child. But when it goes to work in the brain, something else happens — it fosters bonding between humans and, in the case of a mother, facilitates maternal instincts.
Oxytocin is common in many mammals and plays the same roles. However, scientists have so far determined that there seems to be only one case in which interspecies interaction can lead to the mutual release of oxytocin — the interaction between humans and dogs.
In a recent study conducted by Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviorist at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, a group of dogs and their owners were brought together, then each pair was allowed to interact alone in a room for thirty minutes. The researchers measured both human and canine levels of oxytocin before and after, and found that levels had gone up in cases where dog and owner spent a lot of time making eye contact — 130% in dogs, and an incredible 300% in humans.
A few wolves and their owners were included in the study, which showed no change in oxytocin levels between these pairs — unlike dogs, wolves see eye contact, even from a familiar human, as aggressive — and there were also no significant changes in the dog-human pairs that did not spend a lot of time making eye contact.
In a second experiment, the group gave the dogs a nasal spray containing oxytocin beforehand, and found that the humans and dogs in these cases spent a lot more time making eye contact. The dogs’ eye contact levels increased by 150%, while the humans’ oxytocin levels again increased by 300%. But there was a catch: the nasal spray only showed an effect on female dogs.
Kikusui still isn’t sure exactly what’s going on, but there may be a clue here to explain exactly why humans and dogs have formed such a strong and lasting bond. We’ve certainly domesticated other animals. We also keep cats, rabbits, hamsters, snakes and others as pets, and work with horses and cattle and other farm animals. But in none of those other cases is the bond as strong and trust-based as it is between us and our canine companions.
It isn’t clear yet how this ability came about, especially because wolves don’t share it, but perhaps a few early wolves shared a genetic mutation that led them to bond with us and eventually be domesticated into the dogs we know today. However it happened, though, it’s one of the many wonderful gifts that dogs give us.
So look your dog in the eyes today and share the trust, respect, and love from a little dose of oxytocin.
Are you too enchanted by your dog’s gaze? Show us how irresistible those eyes are. Post a photo of your dog in the comments.