THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE DOG-HUMAN BOND – BY ELLIN CURLEY

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.

Me and my dogs

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!

17 thoughts on “THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE DOG-HUMAN BOND – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. This is fascinating, and it makes total sense. My son is autistic and his school has a therapy dog visiting on a regular basis. Dogs, and indeed other animals, can be so therapeutic, and it’s good to know the science behind why they’re so good for us. 🙂

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    1. Glad to hear that your autistic son benefits from contact with dogs. We always knew about the unique bond between humans and dogs. Now we can understand why, on a scientific level, that bond is so strong.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad there’s some science behind it Ellin. However, I just knew that it was a good and healthy interaction between people and their dogs.
    Leslie

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      1. Who would have thought that eyebrow muscles could make such a difference! It’s like dogs looking where we point – something that they do that no other species can do that seals our connection.

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    1. We always knew of the unique connection between our species. It’s just interesting to find out that we can measure that connection scientifically. It doesn’t change anything, but it does give us insights into how this amazing bond evolved over the centuries.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love articles about dogs and people. Our special connection manifests itself in so many ways. I wonder how some dogs can tell when someone is going to have a seizure, or has a blood sugar spike. I think it’s something they can smell.

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  3. What a great post this is, Ellin. Thank You. I didn’t know all of your info – but I can only agree with every word. And the bonding over a dog with older people, handicapped and plein you and me, is just about the best thing to happen anyway. Ricky Gervais often stipulates that for him Dogs are Gods – and I tend to agree with him.

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    1. The only thing I can tell you for sure about the rest of my life is that I will never be without a dog in my home. It’s not a home anymore without at least one dog. We have had two at a time for a long while because I think it’s good for them to have a companion since they are inherently pack animals. And we leave them home alone for hours at a time so they don’t feel alone and abandoned. Also their interactions are so fun to watch. Sometimes they compete with eachother and sometimes they are so loving and cuddly together.

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