By Dr. Becker
Have you ever looked into your dog's eyes and had a warm, pleasant feeling come over you? Maybe a better question would be who hasn't experienced this? Arguably, the ability to exchange knowing glances with your favorite pooch is one of the universal parts of pet ownership — and also one of the most rewarding.
Further, if you've ever felt that sharing a loving gaze with your dog led to real changes in your mood and well-being, you're not imagining it. On the contrary, research shows that such exchanges lead to changes in hormone levels that literally serve to strengthen the dog-human bond.
Dog Gazes Trigger the Release of Oxytocin, aka the Love Hormone
Oxytocin is a hormone commonly referred to as the love hormone, hug hormone and cuddle hormone. It's associated with childbirth and breastfeeding, both of which trigger the release of oxytocin in the body. It's also released during sex and affects emotional, cognitive and social behaviors.
Specifically, oxytocin reduces stress responses and anxiety while increasing feelings of trust, relaxation and bonding. It turns out these feelings are shared not only among human couples and mother-child pairs but also among different species.
Research published in the journal Science revealed spikes of oxytocin are triggered by mutual gazes between a dog and its owner.1 The study involved 30 dogs, which spent 30 minutes in a room with their owners.
Interactions between the pairs were documented and showed increased eye contact led to higher levels of oxytocin.
A second experiment showed that spraying oxytocin into female dogs' noses also increased the amount of time they gazed at their owners. The researchers believe there is an oxytocin-mediated positive feedback loop between species that is controlled by gazing.
Did Dogs Cleverly 'Hijack' the Parent-Child Bonding System?
This may have been involved in the development of human-dog bonds by allowing a shared method of communicating attachment. Further, senior author Takefumi Kikusui of Azabu University told Discovery News:2
"Oxytocin has many positive impacts on human physiology and psychology … For example, it decreases blood pressure, and relieves stress and anxiety. We can really feel the warmth when we are with dogs … and it is feasible that dogs can feel the same sense of affection (from us)."
Interestingly, the same rise in oxytocin was not seen among wolves raised by humans, even though gazes were shared among the animals and familiar owners.
As for why, the researchers suggested dogs may have honed the ability during domestication, noting "it is possible that dogs cleverly and unknowingly 'hijacked' the natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child."3
For the record, all mammals have oxytocin, so it's possible that other animals living closely with humans, such as cats and horses, may also elicit its release.
Oxytoxin Increases Social Bonding Between You and Your Dog
It's been known for some time that oxytocin plays an important role in social interactions and bonding in animals. In 2009, researchers also showed that a dog's gaze at its owner increases the owner's urinary oxytocin during social interactions.
The study involved dog-owner pairs who either interacted for 30 minutes or were instructed not to look at their dogs directly. Owners that received longer gazes from their dogs reported a higher degree of relationship with their dogs as well as had higher increases in urinary oxytocin.
The researchers concluded that interactions with dogs, in particular those initiated by the dog's gaze, may increase oxytocin as a measure of attachment behavior.4
Another study, this one published in 2011, revealed short-term interactions between dogs and their owners (such as petting, stroking or talking to the dog) influenced hormonal levels and heart rate.5 Researchers further noted in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:6
"In recent years, it has been brought forth that dog-human relationships share several characteristics with the maternal bond that unites a child with their principal caregiver … and that mutual gazing — sustained eye contact between two individuals … could be one particular way in which we express our affection or love with our dogs …
Although affection has already been the subject of many animal studies … the possibility that members of two unrelated species could communicate their affection simply by looking at each other is an emerging and fascinating topic for comparative researchers."
Gazing at Your Dog Increases His Attention-Getting Behaviors, Too
In addition to helping to strengthen your bond and giving both of you a boost of feel-good oxytocin, direct gazes shared between you and your dog also alters your dog's behavior.
Research published in the journal Behavioral Processes showed that when owners gazed at their dogs, it led the dogs to increase whining and whimpering and also increased the time the dogs spent looking back at their owners' faces.7
Like the oxytocin study, this research suggests dogs are sensitive to their owners' gazes, and this sensitivity likely contributes to the close relationships between dogs and their owners.
In other words, when your dog looks into your eyes, he really is communicating with you and acting on your cues, all without you having to utter a word.
Dogs will actually follow your gaze similarly to a 6-month-old infant, but only if you convey the intention of communication, which suggests they're quite in-tune with your communicative signals.8 Most dog owners know this intuitively, but now you have the science to back it up.