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Why We Fall for Dogs (and Why They Fall for Us)

They’re cute, they’re kind, they’re fluffy, and they’re a whole lot of fun to be around. But what if we told you there’s a more complicated reason for why we love dogs? Not just that, but what if we told you there’s a reason why even a cat fanatic can form a deep bond with a canine? Science says it’s all in the eyes… and the posterior pituitary gland… and years of evolution. Here’s all you need to know about the subject.

Oxytocin

Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin is a peptide hormone and a neurotransmitter that is heavily associated with all things related to human connection and childbirth. While the hormone plays a huge role in generating empathy, building relationships, and fostering intimacy, its most essential functions are contracting uterine muscles during childbirth, breastfeeding, and creating and strengthening mother-child bonds.

Oxytocin is produced in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, then transported to the posterior pituitary gland, which secretes the hormone into the body. When it enters the bloodstream during childbirth, the hormone contracts the uterus to speed up childbirth. During the lactation period, oxytocin contracts the cells around the alveoli within the mammary glands, pushing the milk (stored in the alveoli) into the mammary ducts.

When secreted in the brain, the hormone plays a big role in promoting trust, emotional connection, bonding, and feelings of affection and warmth. The hormone also has stress-reducing effects – think of why you generally feel better, sometimes safer, after a hug.

The fascinating thing about this hormone is that it is present in all mammals in different quantities and versions. That’s right, fish have their own version of the chemical isotocin. Birds have ​​mesotocin. As for our furry canine friends, they have the same hormone we do. When oxytocin is released in their systems, it impacts how they socialize with other dogs, and surprisingly, humans, too.

Keep in mind, oxytocin primarily affects how a member of species interacts with other members of the same species rather than members of different species. However, according to one research article published in 2015 by Miho Nagasawa, over the course of many years of domestication and coevolution, dogs and humans have developed a special bond that allows them to mutually connect using the same oxytocin-releasing gestures.

Human Bonding

To understand the unique human-canine connection, we must first understand how humans bond and the effects of oxytocin on human relationships. To start with, oxytocin is released when the brain is positively stimulated, through displays of affection, music, or even sharing food. When oxytocin-release is stimulated, the involved couple, pair, or group feel more attached and more connected to each other.

The Gaze

The human gaze is one of the most effective ways used by humans to release oxytocin – ever heard of love at first sight? When a mother makes eye contact with her child during breastfeeding, it triggers the release of oxytocin and spreads a feeling of calmness in both the mother and the child. Not to mention, newborns mainly bond through eye contact. As we grow up and develop more ways to connect with people, our minds don’t let go of that first bonding method we learned when we were younger. That is why gaze is that powerful. It is a connection in its purest, most basic form.

Touch

Right after birth, the child is dried and given to the mother for skin-to-skin contact. This period of mother-child intimacy has been shown to increase the levels of oxytocin and decrease the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) for the mother and the child. In adult relationships, we can see the same effects with friendly touches, like hand-holding and hugging, as well as kissing, massages, and during sexual intercourse.

When the skin experiences the pressure of a loving touch, the orbital frontal cortex lights up in response, thus triggering the release of oxytocin and leaving us wanting more of that positive stimuli. Moreover, oxytocin can also make a friendly touch feel more pleasant than usual, according to a 2020 study that measured 40 subjects’ responses to touch when under the effects of intranasal oxytocin (24IU). This is known as a positive feedback loop where an action triggers the release of a hormone which, in turn, triggers the same action. When you hug someone, oxytocin is released, making the hug feel more pleasant and activating the reward response. This makes you want to keep hugging, which, in turn, releases more oxytocin. No wonder oxytocin goes a long way when it comes to strengthening any relationship.

Human- Dog Attachment & Coevolution

By definition, coevolution is when a set of evolutionary changes in one species shapes the evolution of another species. Most commonly, this can be seen in the relationship between predator and prey. The preyed upon species develop adaptations as a response to the predator’s hunting skills which, in turn, adapts to the prey’s newfound counter-measures. As you see, each species’ evolution is dependent on the other.

While there are many theories on how dogs were first domesticated, DNA evidence suggests that the lineage distinction between wolves and dogs took place over 27,000 years ago. So, in other words, dogs have been adopted by humans as pets for over 27 millennia. They’ve been living among human beings, learning from them and developing their ways of communicating with them. Needless to say, they’ve had to learn how we communicate in order to adapt their ways of communication accordingly and get their needs met.

The theory that Miho Nagasawa suggests is that this long period of domestication has led canines to develop human-like modes of communication and led the human neural system to evolve to recognize and develop attachments to members of the canine species. To further support the theory, Nagasawa measured the levels of oxytocin in dogs and their owners in several different types of interactions: when the owner is talking to their dog, when the owner and the dog are gazing at each other, and when the owner is touching their dog. The findings were quite surprising.

When measured after the dogs and the owners spent a period of 30-minutes mutually gazing at each other, oxytocin levels showed a significant increase in the humans and the canines. Similar results were also recorded when the owners touched their dogs.

In humans, the mutual gaze releases oxytocin and fosters attachment, resulting in a positive feedback loop. However, in order for an oxytocin-dependent feedback loop to take place, there needs to be shared social cues and individual recognition, ex. shared gazes between spouses possessing a deep mutual understanding. That is why this type of loop has rarely existed on such a large scale between two different species.

Keep in mind, the findings showed an increase in oxytocin levels, the longer owner-dog pairs gazed at each other, thus indicating the existence of a positive feedback loop that led to the increased production of the hormone. Consequently, this means that humans and canines possess the ability to recognize each other on an individual level and pick up on social cues. Not just that, but it also means that a cue, such as mutual gaze, can affect both species on a neural level, resulting in the production of oxytocin. This translates to a higher quality of mutual attachment between humans. In the simplest of terms, this means that dogs and humans are capable of communicating feelings, like love and warmth. It also means that your dog recognizes you and they feel attached to you the same way you feel attached to them.

Dogs vs. Wolves

What led to the creation of this oxytocin-mediated feedback loop and the bond between dogs and humans? Earlier, we mentioned that Nagasawa’s hypothesis was that it was the result of the coevolution that took place when dogs were domesticated. To test out the hypothesis, Nagasawa conducted the same experiments on hand-bred wolves as they are an undomesticated member of the canine family and a direct ancestor to dogs.

While the owners’ oxytocin levels increased slightly, the wolves’ oxytocin levels decreased during the mutual gaze experiment. It makes a lot of sense, given that wolves do not use eye contact as a method of communication with humans but often view persisting eye contact as a threat.

With these findings and the core difference between wolves and dogs, Nagasawa reached the conclusion that dogs and humans do, in fact, share a positive feedback loop based on the acquired ability of dogs to use gazing, a human social behavior. Nagasawa also concluded that the human-canine bond shared a similar nature to mother-child bonds since oxytocin-mediated positive feedback loops can be initiated with gaze and touch in both.

There you have it, the science behind why we’re capable of forming deep mutual relationships with our dogs. This study also explains why our dogs’ eyes can be really expressive at times and why they get really sad when we leave. If you’ve developed an attachment to someone, wouldn’t you be upset if they leave? Wouldn’t you be over the moon when they came back?

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