If you’ve ever stared into your dog’s eyes and immediately felt better, there’s a scientific reason why and it has to do with a chemical called Oxytocin.
Oxytocin – The happy hormone
Oxytocin is a natural hormone that manages key aspects of the female and male reproductive systems, as well as aspects of human behaviour and their responses. It is typically linked to warm, fuzzy feelings and shown in some research to lower stress and anxiety. Oxytocin has the power to regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, gazing, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication.
Mothers who gaze at their babies have higher levels of oxytocin. Mothers with higher oxytocin levels engage in more mothering behavior, which raises oxytocin levels in their babies, which leads babies to be more attached and attentive to their mothers, creating a never-ending positive feedback loop.
Oxytocin levels increase have been shown to increase with soft touches also, which partially explains the feelings humans get when they are romantically involved.
It turns out that this behaviour has the same effect on dogs, where soft petting can make them feel happier and more relaxed. Because dogs affect us and our oxytocin levels are much the same as human babies do, the bond we have with our dogs can feel like the bond between mothers and children. The mechanism behind the connection is the same.
A dog’s gaze
A 2015 study was the first to demonstrate oxytocin’s cross species effects. In the study (“Oxytocin-gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-dog Bonds”), dog-human pairs were observed interacting during a 30-minute period. The dogs who gazed at their guardians longer displayed higher levels of oxytocin than those in pairs who did not gaze at one another for as long. A caveat: Like many other areas of canine behavior, eye contact is complex, nuanced, and context-dependent.
While gazing into the eyes of a dog you love and who loves you can create a tender moment, staring into the eyes of an unknown or unfriendly dog can be perceived by the dog as threatening and scary. This behaviour is common amongst wolves who use direct eye contact to convey dominance and aggression.
Biologists were excited to find underlying physiological mechanisms common to the formation of both romantic and parental social bonds. Dog lovers were enthralled by the evidence that we love our dogs like we love people, scientifically speaking. It’s possible that the original process of domestication was facilitated by canines co-opting this human social-bonding process, paving the way for the bonds we have with our dogs now.
Helping us communicate
The study’s most exciting finding was that oxytocin makes dogs more receptive to social signals, likely to the positive-loop it provides making dogs want to have more of it.. Since oxytocin is also known to make memories of negative social interactions more intense as well, it is fair to say that this chemical may allow individuals of a variety of species to focus their attention on social information and enhance their ability to understand it at a deeper level. Though oxytocin is well known to promote positive emotional states, this research suggests that it can have a negative effect in some circumstances.
Difference between breeds
A study published in 2016, Differential Effects of Oxytocin on Social Sensitivity in Two Distinct Breeds of Dogs, oxytocin was given to Border Collies and Siberian Huskies to test its influence on their social responsiveness. The former are as famous for being cooperative workers as the latter are for working on their own. The results? Border Collies had a stronger response to receiving oxytocin than the Siberian Huskies, as measured by their behavior after treatment.
This seems to mean that independent dogs can’t be converted to the most obedient of dogs simply by administering oxytocin. Thanks to differences in the ways they react to it physiologically, not all dogs (or all breeds) experience the same effect. This also is proven in other studies where the more ancient breeds(huskies, malamutes, Shiba Inus etc.) and ones who’s DNA signatures differed less than wolves were less inclined to communicate with humans.
That dogs have such a profound influence on our lives is not news to anybody, but their effects on our physiology continue to make headlines.
Petting our dogs can increase our oxytocin levels (and theirs!); even thinking about our dogs can make them rise. Having our dogs on our mind when life gets rough may be a good idea because oxytocin can reduce stress, increase pain tolerance and enhance well-being.
With its reputation as the “feel-good hormone,” it’s no surprise that oxytocin figures heavily into our relationship with dogs. We’ve learned much about its effects on both species, and new research will surely reveal even more about its relevance to the bond we share. For now, we can summarize what’s known by saying that if you’re convinced that the chemistry between you and your dog is real, science definitely has your back.
Study Source – Researchgate – “Oxytocin-Gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds”