Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” plays a key role in human bonding. It’s involved in trust, empathy, romantic attachment and other pro-social emotions and states of mind.
Interestingly, oxytocin isn’t just important for humans. It also appears to affect dogs’ social behavior, and in particular how dogs interact with humans.
A study published in Science last year found that eye contact between dogs and their owners facilitates a bonding process that increases oxytocin levels in both the owners and the dogs.
Specifically, prolonged eye contact between dogs and their owners increases oxytocin in the owners, which leads the owners to engage in behaviors that increase oxytocin in dogs. The study also found that it worked in the other direction: administering oxytocin nasal spray to the dogs led them to make more eye contact, which again increased oxytocin in the owners.
The researchers suggest that this biological similarity in how bonding happens may be partly what makes dogs “man’s best friend.” When the researchers repeated the study on wolves, animals that are not typically domesticated, they found that eye contact didn’t have the same effect on owners’ oxytocin.
Other work has also suggested this overlap in social behavior as something that leads to bonding between humans and pets. One study found that domesticated but not wild ferrets followed human gestures like pointing and tolerated prolonged eye contact.
Like domestic ferrets, dogs are unusually good at interpreting human gestures. In particular, they understand pointing cues well, even more so when they’ve been given oxytocin.
Of course, as with people, not all dogs are equally sociable. Some dogs are more sociable than others, and more sociable dogs tend to initiate more eye contact and physical contact with people.
While there’s more research to be done on the topic, these studies seem to support something pet owners have long argued: that some animals are capable of really connecting with people. Because oxytocin has a whole range of positive effects on health and happiness, this work also suggests some reasons owning a pet might be good for you.
By the way, in case you’re wondering how cats fit into the whole picture, most of the research so far has focused on dogs (and, apparently, ferrets). Psychology researchers tend to mostly be dog people, it seems.
Image: FreeImages.com/Kera Robson