We often refer to dogs as “man’s best friend,” but that connection may be much stronger.
A researcher at Azabu University in Japan has found that owner-dog bonding can be as powerful as parent-infant bonding, generating comparable levels of oxytocin, the hormone that helps us form our strongest emotional connections.
Typically, oxytocin-induced bonding is species-specific; humans experience oxytocin production in connection to other humans, and dogs experience the same with other dogs. This new research is the first to suggest that oxytocin can cross species lines, connecting us with our dogs through a neurological chemical reaction that arguably bonds us more deeply than with other pets.
The oxytocin bonding experiment was conducted in two parts. Researchers first measured quantities of oxytocin in 28 pairs of dogs and their owners. The hormone levels were first measured before any interaction between the pairs, and then again after 30 minutes of people-pup interaction, during which time the owners talked to, looked at and petted their dogs.
The most marked increase of oxytocin levels occurred with the owners and dogs that had spent some time gazing at one another. According to the study, we humans use eye gazing for connective communication and are generally very sensitive to eye contact. Gazing, over touch, led to the release of oxytocin.
For the second piece of the experiment, researchers gave 54 dogs a spritz of either saline or oxytocin in their noses. Researchers noted that the dogs that received the oxytocin, particularly the female dogs, spent more time gazing at their owners. After 30 minutes, the owners’ oxytocin levels were tested again, and those that had engaged in the eye gazing with their pups showed an increased level of oxytocin.
Interestingly, the same findings are not true of wolves, from which dogs descended about 30,000 years ago. The study explains that this means that dogs developed this superior bonding association during the domestication process.
So, no, it’s not your imagination. Looking into your pooch’s eyes truly can lift your spirits and warm your heart every bit as much as gazing at your spouse or cuddling with your baby.
Take that, cats.