How better to spend a chilly winter afternoon than gazing into a pair of warm canine eyes? As it turns out, there’s a perfectly rational reason to do so, one that also suggests how dogs became our “truest companions.”
In a 2015 study reported in Science (“Oxytocin-gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds”), a team of Japanese researchers led by Miho Nagasawa studied the role oxytocin plays in the ancient relationship between people and dogs. Popularly called the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin enhances the attachment between human mothers and infants; the longer the two gaze into one another’s eyes, the greater their levels of oxytocin. The practical effect of this feel-good neurological chemical is to stimulate contact. For mother and child, the shared gaze creates a seamless loop of affection and bonding.
Since both dogs and humans use gaze to communicate, the team hypothesized that this same loop might come into play between our two species. It could also help explain how dogs came to take their place in our lives—or, in science-speak, to suggest a reason for our unique “interspecies affiliation.”
The study’s results seem to confirm the hypothesis. In a series of experimental situations, dogs’ “gazing behavior” increased oxytocin levels in their owners, and when the owners gazed back, the dogs’ oxytocin levels went up as well. And, as with human mothers and infants, the amount of time owners talked to and touched their dogs also increased, thus deepening the bond between them.
So, the next time you find yourself engaged in a mutual-admiration session with your co-pilot, remember: it’s not just a pleasant way to pass the time, it’s also part of nature’s grand plan!