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How Dogs Hack Our Brain To Make Us Love Them The Way We Love Human Babies

Research suggests a whole new layer of meaning to the term “puppy dog eyes”

image via (cc) flickr user foosel

We all know them: People who baby their dogs a little too much. Maybe they let the pooch sleep on the bed with them, or feed it scraps right from the table. Maybe they even give their dog open mouth French kisses. There are a lot of ways dogs have come to occupy special places in our lives, and now a team of researchers think they know why.


The key, according to Azabu University’s Miho Nagasawa, is eye contact.

When human mothers look at infants, both infant and adult experience a spike in oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” often associated with maternal nursing, and even sexual orgasm. This hormonal rise galvanizes the strong emotional bond between the pair that leads to a feedback loop of continued gazing, further chemical release...Lather, rinse, repeat. As it turns out, this same chemical feedback loop is what cements the bonds between people and their dogs, as well.

image via (cc) flickr user jessiemoore

To reach this conclusion, Nagasawa and his team observed and recorded the interactions between thirty canine/human pairs over half-hour sessions. They then tested both dog and human urine samples for increased levels of oxytocin. What they discovered was a 130% oxytocin spike in dogs–both male and female–who engaged in deep eye-gazing with their owners, and an astonishing 300% spike in the humans. In a second round of experiments, the scientists administered a nasal spray of the chemical to the dogs before the interaction sessions, and observed a 150% increase in canine eye-gazing as a result, but only in females.

Interestingly enough, when the first of the two experiments was duplicated using wolves that had been raised in captivity, there was no significant spike in hormone levels. It seems that when it comes to reproducing the parent-baby hormone response, only dogs elicit the same reaction. Researchers suggest the dogs-only hormone spike may point to a correlation between oxytocin and the process by which dog’s feral ancestors were domesticated.

Regardless, the fact that dogs and humans share this interspecies hormonal bond should be enough to partially explain, if not necessarily excuse, people who insist on babying their pet pooch. It’s not indulgence – it’s chemical.

[via sciencemag.org]

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