By Dr. Becker
Recent research on the human-animal bond has proved there is genuine chemistry between dogs and their owners. Daily interactions with your favorite furry companion have a measurably positive effect on your biochemistry, thanks to a hormone called oxytocin.
Oxytocin goes by a number of nicknames, including the “hug hormone,” the “cuddle hormone,” the “love chemical,” and the “morale molecule.” Oxytocin is what makes skin-to-skin contact feel good; it’s what makes a great meal so satisfying. This marvelous hormone can also act as a natural painkiller, and can lower stress levels and blood pressure.
It’s a well-known fact that human-to-human contact – for example, bonding with children or partners – triggers the release of oxytocin. But what more recent studies have revealed is that bonding with a completely different species also promotes release of the “love chemical.”
Bonded Owner-Dog Pairs Show Increased Levels of Oxytocin and Other “Happy Hormones”
There was a Japanese study published a few years ago in the journal Hormones and Behavior titled Dog's gaze at its owner increases owner's urinary oxytocin during social interaction.1 The study involved 55 dogs and their owners. The owners whose dogs gazed at them for two minutes or longer showed higher levels of oxytocin than owners whose dogs gazed at them for less time. The people with dogs with a long gaze – about 23 percent of the group – also claimed to be happier with their dogs than owners whose dogs’ gaze was only around a minute long.
In a more recent study from Sweden,2 researchers found that owners who kissed their dogs frequently had higher levels of oxytocin than other owners. And along with kissing, there were two other factors that contributed to elevated levels of oxytocin. One was that the owners perceived their relationship with their dog to be pleasurable rather than difficult or a chore, and the other was that they offered fewer treats to their pet, preferring to offer attention and affection instead.
In a third study published 10 years ago and conducted at the University of Pretoria in South Africa,3 dog owners were put in a sparsely furnished room and asked to sit on a rug on the floor with their dogs. For a half hour, the owners were instructed to focus all their attention on their dogs – talk softly to them, stroke and scratch and pet them. The owners’ blood was drawn at the beginning and again at the end of the 30 minute session.
The researchers found that the dog owners’ blood pressure decreased, and they showed elevated levels not only of oxytocin, but also several other hormones. These included beta-endorphins, which are associated with both pain relief and euphoria; prolactin, which promotes bonding between parent and child; phenylethylamine, which is increased in people involved in romantic relationships; and dopamine, which heightens feelings of pleasure. Incredibly, all the same hormones were also elevated in the dogs, which suggests that the feelings of attachment are mutual.
The dog owners were then asked to sit in the same room and read a book for 30 minutes. None of the hormones, including oxytocin, increased as much as they did during the session with the dogs.
How Bonded Are You to Your Dog?
Isn’t it incredible that for many of us, our relationship with our dog is so profound it affects our biochemistry? And it does the same for our dogs.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Understanding the mechanisms of the relationship between humans and dogs, and their implications for both species, will keep researchers occupied well into the future.
In the meantime, if you need a little boost – or if your dog seems to – try engaging him in a long, loving gaze. If he’s the shy type, give him your undivided, loving attention for a half hour. You’ll both feel healthier and happier for it!