A study published in Science reveals how dogs connect with their owners. The connection is related to the production of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for social bonding that occurs between a mother and newborn, and between sexual partners. It is also at play when humans bond with dogs, being released when a dog and a person gaze at each other.
It is well known that mutual gaze releases oxytocin, which mediates emotional bonding in people. The oxytocin response is a feedback loop. A nurturing gaze releases oxytocin in the infant, which stimulates production of oxytocin in the mother, which further stimulates nurturing behavior, and becomes a positive feedback loop.
This study demonstrated that the same process happens when a dog and owner engage in the same behavior. For the first time, this oxytocin-mediated bonding has been shown to occur outside of intra-species relationships. Unlike wolves, or even primates who are genetically closer to humans, dogs are the only non-human animal able to elicit this oxytocin response loop. Dog-to-owner gaze was shown to produce an oxytocin response in both the dog and the human owner.
This oxytocin response loop may also explain the extraordinary bonds formed between dogs and their human owners, and why puppies often exhibit similar behavior patterns as young children in response to visual cues.
Oxytocin also has been shown to reduce stress and increase social reward behavior. Perhaps this is the mechanism behind the success of service dogs for people with disorders involving impaired social pathways, such as autism, PTSD, and other neuro-developmental conditions where oxytocin is being used as an experimental treatment. We know that SNPs in the oxytocin pathway are associated with many of these conditions, and employing situations that increase oxytocin production may be a helpful intervention.
When a person says they feel calmer and better around their dog, science is now showing that it isn’t just in their imagination. It’s the oxytocin.
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