Stop it fren you are doin me a love

This is Poppy, my housemates dog. Try not to fall in love with this doggo. Photo: Paul Hanley

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.

You kept staring into her eyes didn’t you? You’re in love now. Photo: Paul Hanley

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.

Take other peoples dogs on holidays if you can. Photo: Paul Hanley

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.

7 Responses to “Stop it fren you are doin me a love”

  1. Ehlana Tompsett says:

    This is the quality soul warming content I want to read in the mornings. Could the difference between the wolves and dogs be to do with their social relationships? I tend to think that eye contact in Wolves is more about establishing dominance in the pack rather than the simple joy of being part of it. But I’m only forming that association from a quote from the movie “Snow Dogs” where you have to stare a snow dog down and “bite him on the ear” to show who’s boss.

  2. Tharaka Kaluarachchi says:

    I was instantly drawn to this post because of the title. Have you read this article about internet dog speak? It really does make the internet a nicer space.

  3. Cherese Sonkkila says:

    But also, that's super interesting that oxytocin plays a role in this too! Maybe all the hippies that are into "eye gazing" as a way of fostering connection are on to something there.

    Also, I read that when you get angry at your dog for something like a bin-contents-eating incident, they are actually exhibiting fear? Or are you just putting it in nicer terms?

  4. Paul Hanley says:

    It’s a good feeling to know! Great question, I actually study plants and have no background in animal behaviour, but I love dogs so I wrote the post haha. But i was interested as well and found this good paper which I think suggest wolves can be tamed, however they don’t become attached to their owners in the same way dogs do, as dogs attachment is similar to the attachment seen in human infants.

  5. Paul Hanley says:

    Good question. In the Nagasaw et al. study they did have a second experiment where they administered oxytocin in a nasal spray to the dogs, and observed the dog-human interaction with the dog and its owner and two other unfamiliar people in the room. In female dogs oxytocin increased gaze between owners, but not the unfamiliar people. And in males it did nothing to both, which they think may be due to the male dogs being more vigilant and ready to fight for their owner. In other studies male voles have reacted more aggressively after being given oxytocin and that has been studied more carefully so the authors suggest that might be the case. In their experiment neither the strangers or the owners were allowed to talk to or touch the dogs, which caused increases in oxytocin in dogs and owners in experiment 1, so it would be really interesting to see how long a dog needs to know someone for increases in (positive) oxytocin to be seen. This study suggests the interaction between owner and stranger and the different cues the stranger displays affects the response.

  6. Gabriel Cornell says:

    Do you know if this eye-gazing only affects dogs that have an established relationship with the people that they are gazing at? If not, it suggests dogs are just loose with their affection!

  7. Sarah Misev says:

    Great post Paul! I always hoped that by gazing into my dog’s eyes, he would know how much I love him. Now I know for sure 🙂 Its interesting that wolves do not make eye contact. Do they show love to humans in other ways? Or does this suggest that wolves can’t be domesticated? Thank you