If you’ve ever felt a surge of emotion as you gaze lovingly into your dog’s eyes, you’re not alone. There are few things quite so good at reviving your spirits and making you feel just a little bit better about yourself, your life, and the world at large than a few minutes of serious eye contact with your pet. The reason? If the latest research is anything to go by, it all comes down to a little thing called oxytocin.
The Love Hormone
Ever wondered why you get that surge of love and affection when you’re around a certain someone? Then wonder no more. Oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone”, is the body’s way of promoting a sense of affection and trust. That feeling a mother gets when she holds her newborn baby for the first time? Oxytocin. That warm, fuzzy feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you hold your partner’s hand? Oxytocin. Basically, whenever you feel love on an almost physical level, oxytocin is the reason.
The Feel-Good Factor
Humans may be more than just a bunch of walking hormones, but you might be surprised to learn just how much certain hormones impact on who we are and how we interact with the world around us. According to those in the know (by which we mean the white coat brigade), hormones influence (and sometimes even control) everything from how we see the world to how the world sees us. Take oxytocin, for example. While we may like to think we’re the ones holding the reigns in our relationships, it’s probably more accurate to say that oxytocin is. At the start of a relationship, oxytocin quite literally courses through our veins, helping us feel more relaxed, generous, extroverted, and yes, just a little “cuddlier” than we’d usually be. It’s not just in romantic relationships that oxytocin impacts our behaviors. Thought you were being nice by agreeing to meet your friends at their choice of restaurant rather than yours? Well, you were, but that niceness is probably better explained by a rush of oxytocin to the head than it is by your natural altruism.
A Very Un-Vicious Circle
So, we’ve established that oxytocin is a “good thing”. According to research, it’s also a circular thing. Take the example of a new mother and baby. As the mother looks into her newborn’s eyes for the first time, the oxytocin starts to surge through her veins. As the baby looks back, their own oxytocin starts to kick in, triggering an even greater rush of the love hormone in the mother, and, then the baby, and then the mother, and… well, you get the picture. Thanks to this cyclical effect (often referred to as the “positive feedback loop”), both mother and child end up with so much oxytocin in their bodies, the effect is best described as the ultimate natural high.
Thought it was only fleas you could catch from your furry friend? Then think again. According to the latest studies, you can also catch a good amount of lovely oxytocin. Led by Miho Nagasawa and Takefumi Kikusui, a team of biologists at Azuba University decided to put the idea of the oxytocin feedback loop to the test… only this time, dogs were invited to the party. The researchers started the experiment by popping dogs and their owners into a room for 30 minutes of play. During the 30 minutes, the team studied the couple’s as they played, petted, gazed into each other’s eyes, and generally did what pet’s and their owners do best. After the 30 minutes were up, the researchers measured the oxytocin levels in both the two-legged and four-legged participants… and the results were illuminating. Of the pair’s studied, those that spent the longest (2.5 minutes or more) locked in eye contact had 20% higher oxytocin levels than those who’d spent 45 seconds or less gazing into each other’s eyes, suggesting that the oxytocin feedback loop has just as much a part to play in cross-species relationships as it does in inter-species ones.
The Female of the Species is More Cuddly Than The Male
Having discovered that the oxytocin loop applies across different species, Nagasawa, Kikusui, et al decided to take things one step further. In their second experiment, each dog was given a little dose of oxytocin via a nasal spray before embarking on another round of play, this time with both their owner and a mix of strangers. Two things became obvious straight away. Not only did the dogs spend more time locking eyes with their owner than with the strangers, the female dogs seemed more affected by the increase in oxytocin than their male counterparts. Additionally, female owners experienced a much higher boost of oxytocin by being on the receiving end of their dog’s attention than the men in the group. Previous research has suggested women are more sensitive to the love hormone than men, but this latest study seems to take things one step further by suggesting that any female, human or otherwise, is more susceptible to oxytocin’s effects.
Evolution Explains Everything
In the third round of their experiment, the researchers repeated the test with wolves instead of dogs. The humans involved had (fortunately, enough) already bonded with the wolves, having raised them from the time they were pups. Given the evolutionary relationship between wolves and dogs, researchers were keen to discover if the oxytocin loop would be just as observable in wolves and their handlers as it was with dogs and their owners. As it turned out, it wasn’t. No deep gazes between wolf and human were observed. Neither was there any rise in oxytocin in either species. The conclusion was obvious… the oxytocin feedback loop has co-evolved between humans and dogs as a means of cementing the bond between the two species.
The Eternal Bond
So, as it turns out, dogs really are man’s best friend (or woman’s, to be more accurate). As dog lovers could probably have told us all along, with or without the corresponding research, the bond between humans and dogs is deep, meaningful, and very much two-sided… and it’s all down to a little hormone called oxytocin.