The science behind man’s best friendship
There is just something about the human-dog relationship that transcends the species gap and feels eerily, but positively human. What’s up with that, dog?
A recently published study in the research journal Science shows that humans bond to dogs—and they bond to humans—in the same biochemical way that humans bond to each other.
Associated with feelings of tranquility, warmth, relaxation, and well-being, oxytocin, also known as the “attachment hormone” and “love hormone,” plays a major role in human behavior and cognition—including childbirth, breastfeeding, sexual arousal and enjoyment, partner bonding, parent-child bonding, social bonding, nurturing, trust, and empathy. The sort of feelings and mood created by acts like cuddling with a child, or staring into a lover’s eyes are at least partly due to oxytocin’s effects. And this April, Science confirmed that dogs and humans can affect each other this way, too.
Conducted by researchers at Azabu University in Japan, the study’s main finding was that when dogs gazed into their owners’ eyes, the dogs’ levels of the hormone oxytocin increased significantly. This canine gazing then increased oxytocin levels in the human owners, which encouraged them to stare longer at their furry friends, creating a cross-species positive feedback loop that facilitated bonding. Or, in other words, true companionship all the way down to the biochemical level.
The Science study also looked at wolves, the dog’s closest relatives, and found this eye-contact oxytocin feedback loop did not exist. In fact, the kind of attachment that would probably come from looking a wolf in the eye is more likely to be its jaws clamped around your leg instead of a wet kiss on the nose.
While previous research has shown that cats are much less dependent on humans than dogs and children, it begins to make sense that humans and dogs seem able to see into each other’s souls when we look at our history together. Over the millennia, humans and canines have developed a symbiotic relationship. We have, in a sense, domesticated each other. Humans provide dogs with food and shelter, and, in return, capitalize on their senses of hearing and smell—which ranges from 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute in dogs than in humans—by using them to help us with tasks like hunting, herding, and protection.
Long known for the assistance they provide to the elderly and blind as guide dogs, more recently, diabetic alert dogs have begun to grow in use and popularity as rates of the disease rise. While more research needs to be done into their efficacy, the idea is that these special dogs can detect when their owners’ blood sugar levels are out of whack, helping the owner manage his or her symptoms and live a healthier life.
There is also a growing trend of “therapy dogs,” canines trained to help people like the sick and disabled, and to treat conditions like anxiety and depression. While some humans might turn up a dry nose to this idea, oxytocin has been shown to reduce fear and social anxiety, and a dog-mediated release may provide feelings of security and even help with conditions like autism. The hormone also reduces inflammation and may even boost the immune system.
The incredible health benefits that dogs can provide their owners are due, in large part, to the activated release of oxytocin in the brain, which reduces symptoms like loneliness, fear, anxiety, and depression. Especially when compared to the harsh side effects of the pharmaceuticals traditionally prescribed for these conditions, owning or adopting a dog is an effective way to “wag more and bark less.”
FOR THE LOVE OF DOG A recent study shows that dogs release oxytocin in their owners’ brains and vice versa.