So now we know when dogs became a close companion for humans but do you know why? What makes the relationship between humans and dogs so special? Why are we attracted to dogs? And, as dog lovers, why do we feel the need to pet every dog we see on the street?
The strong chemistry between dog and owner is believed to be caused by the hormone Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that has a number of effects on the human brain. Through experiments and tests, scientists have found that Oxytocin, in humans, is responsible for:
Oxytocin is also known to have profound effects on mood and increases happiness and love.
A 2005 paper called ‘Oxytocin increases trust in humans’, published in Nature, simply states that “…intranasal administration of oxytocin…causes a substantial increase in trust among humans…”. The paper explored the effects of oxytocin in humans and their interactions with each other in hypothetical situations involving money and investments. It was noted that the increase in oxytocin led the subjects to be more trustworthy in the situations and more willing to invest.
Much of the research into oxytocin has been based on human-human interactions until a team of Japanese veterinarians conducted a study involving dogs and wolves, and their owners. During the study, owners would gaze into their dog’s eyes for a specified period of time and found that ‘gaze’ caused a profound increase in oxytocin between both dogs and owners. It was also found that talking and petting had a lesser effect.
The team measured urinary oxytocin levels in both dogs and owners before and after 30 minutes of interaction with each other and found a spike in the hormone levels in both the dog and the owner. With the hormone known to increase trust, bonding, empathy and ease fear, it makes sense that the bond between canine and owner is incredibly strong.
Another interesting point that came up in the study is that wolves, the ancestor of today’s domestic dogs, did not experience any spike in oxytocin with their owner. I believe, that this suggests ‘man’s best friend’ has evolved over time to pick up on social cues and behavioural traits associated with human interaction. They’ve learned a way to connect with us that wolves never could, just one of the many ways that dogs have evolved over the years.