Did you ever wonder why dogs are the only other mammal that became universally domesticated and now lives with humans as part of their families? Well, there’s a scientific explanation and it’s called Oxytocin. The same chemical that plays a role in mother/infant bonding as well as in altruism and trust, is at work with humans and dogs.
There is a new study that shows for the first time, that there is actual hormonal bonding that goes on between humans and dogs. Dogs are the only other species with whom that occurs, which may explain why dogs are the primary animals that became household pets thousands of years ago.
Apparently, only the wolves who had this chemical bond with humans received care and protection and over time, they evolved into dogs. In exchange, the chemical reaction in humans decreased their anxiety and elicited a maternal bonding style reaction. This, in turn, improved the humans’ health and mental states creating a mutual gain in the evolution of the man/dog connection.
One of the effects of this special connection between our species is that dogs understand us in a way no other animals do. For example, if we point at something, a dog will look where we’re pointing. They intuitively understand that we’re communicating something to them. This may seem minor, but our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees, do not do that! Another example is that humans and dogs look into each other’s eyes when interacting, which is a sign of understanding and affection. In contrast, wolves see eye contact as a sign of aggression and hostility.
The study involves a small sample but the results were definitive. Thirty pairs of dogs and humans and domesticated wolves with their humans came into a lab and had their urine tested. Then the owners interacted with their pets for thirty minutes, petting them, talking to them and gazing into each other’s eyes.
After the interaction, another urine sample was taken. It turns out that mutual gazing had a profound physiological effect on both the dogs and their owners. With the pairs who had spent the most time engaging in eye contact, the dogs experienced a 130% rise in Oxytocin levels and the humans experienced a 300% increase! The wolf-human pairs showed no Oxytocin increase and neither did the dog/owner pairs that had minimal eye contact.
The way Oxytocin works with mothers and infants is that when a mother stares into her baby’s eyes, the baby’s Oxytocin levels rise, which causes the baby to stare back at the mother. This then causes the mother to release more Oxytocin and a positive feedback loop is created.
The same thing occurs with dogs and their humans. This explains why service dogs, companion dogs, and emotional support dogs are so helpful for people with all kinds of issues, illnesses, and disabilities, including autism and PTSD.
As Oxytocin may help explain the domestication process with dogs, it might also explain the dog’s ability to understand pointing.
A while ago, I read another study contrasting dogs’ and wolves’ interactions with humans. The animals were rewarded with food whenever they pushed a lever. Then the lever was nailed down so no matter what the dog did, they no longer got a treat. The wolves continued to hit the lever for long periods of time.
With dogs, after a few unsuccessful tries, they would stop and look up at the nearby humans, asking for help. The dogs understood they couldn’t solve this problem but humans could and would help them deal with the situation.
I’ve always known that petting my dogs and cuddling with them as well as talking to them — even walking them — makes me feel a rush of positive energy and emotions.
When I’m down, I worry that I’m annoying my dogs by showering them with endless loving. I think I always understood that in some way, my affectionate behavior to my dogs is a form of self-medication. I’m sure there are times they’d prefer to be left alone. I also sense they know that part of their mission in life is to be there for me when I need them.
It’s gratifying to me to know that there is a scientific explanation to my crazy, over the top love for my dogs.
I’m an Oxytocin addict!