Stop it fren you are doin me a love
When your dog stares lovingly into your eyes wagging its tail it’s probably hungry, waiting for you to hurry up and give it its food. Or maybe it wants to go for a walk or go the park?
As humans we project our thoughts onto other animals and imagine they think how we think. One classic example is when you come home and your dog has gotten into the bin and chewed up everything on the floor. They seem sheepish, hiding instead of greeting you at the door, when you ask them “what is this?” they hang their head in shame, clearly guilty. According to several experts this isn’t actually true. Dogs basically act in a guilty way to appease their owners when they know they are angry, but they don’t really have a clue why, they just think acting this way will get it over with quicker.
So what other emotions are dogs pretending? Surely not love? I love my dogs, they love me back don’t they?
If I meet a dog I’ll be telling it I love it after about 30 seconds of patting it. I get that they probably don’t love me back yet, but I’m going to assume that the dogs I live with love me by now.
Dogs think humans are adorable cutiepies
I’ve been telling this “fact” to people for several years because of this meme. Like a lot of so-called facts and anecdotes flying around on the Internet I never checked this one, but I liked it, so I retold it a lot.
But after a little research it turns out it is true. Humans and dogs bond emotionally as we gaze into each other’s eyes, in a process mediated by the hormone oxytocin.
Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love” or “trust” hormone. It plays a primary role in regulating social bonding between mothers and infants, and between sexual partners in monogamous relationships. In fact, in humans “mutual gaze” between a mother and infant is the fundamental way that social attachment is attained.
How did researchers find this out?
A team of Japanese researchers set up an experiment where different behaviours between dogs and their owners were measured. These included both owner and dog gazing at each other, the owner talking to the dog and the owners touching their dogs. The gazing behaviour had a short-gaze and a long-gaze treatment to test how long it takes for the effects to become apparent. Before the behaviour was performed urine samples were collected from both the dogs and the owners and then taken 30 minutes after the interactions. This is how the researchers sampled oxytocin concentrations and analyzed if there were any significant changes.
Interestingly, they also did the same procedures with wolves (and their owners) to see if the results were similar. If they differed it serves as more evidence that the positive loop was acquired through a co-evolution between dogs and humans.
They found that concentrations of oxytocin did increase in both owners and their dogs when they gazed at or touched their dogs. The effect increased linearly, meaning that the longer the owners looked at and patted their dogs the more concentrated the levels of the hormone became.
The wolves on the other hand avoided eye contact and no increases were seen, which kind of crushes any dreams of having a chill wolf pet to hang out with.
So the next time you give your dog (or anyone’s dog) a big cuddle and look into their eyes, know that you are strengthening a deep, family like, mutual bond and continuing on the legacy that humans and dogs have evolved over thousands of years.