Staring into Your Dog's Eyes: The Power of the Human-Canine Bond

May 02, 2024

The bond between humans and their dogs is a beautiful testament to the power of companionship. The simple act of gazing into your dog's eyes can strengthen this bond, promote mutual understanding, and offer a host of emotional and health benefits.

woman and her pug gazing into each other's eyes

Have you ever caught yourself gazing into your dog's eyes and felt an overwhelming sense of affection? You're not alone. There's a scientific explanation behind this powerful human-canine bond, linked to a hormone called oxytocin. Here we delve into the science of gazing into your dog's eyes and the benefits of this bonding activity.

Understanding the Human-Dog Bond

The bond between humans and their dogs is not merely emotional. Recent research indicates that this connection has deep roots in our biology. It turns out that when a person and their dog gaze into each other's eyes, both experience a rise in oxytocin levels, the hormone associated with love and bonding. This is similar to the oxytocin feedback loop observed between a mother and her child.

"It's an incredible finding that suggests that dogs have hijacked the human bonding system," says Brian Hare, an expert on canine cognition at Duke University.

The Role of Oxytocin in Bonding

Oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone," plays a significant role in establishing and strengthening social bonds. It's largely responsible for the emotional connection between a mother and her newborn child. The same hormone is also at work when humans interact with their dogs. When a person and their dog lock eyes, the human's oxytocin levels increase, leading the dog to reciprocate the gaze, which in turn causes the human's oxytocin levels to rise even further, creating a positive feedback loop.

The Power of Mutual Gazing

A study conducted by Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviorist at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, explored the impact of mutual gazing between humans and their dogs. The researchers found that dog owners who spent more time gazing into their dogs' eyes experienced a 300% increase in oxytocin levels. Similarly, the dogs also showed a significant rise in oxytocin levels.

"I love my dogs, and I always feel that they're more of a partner than a pet," Kikusui says.

The Oxytocin Effect in Dogs

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers administered a nasal spray of oxytocin to the dogs before they interacted with their owners. The results were intriguing. Female dogs that received the oxytocin spray spent 150% more time gazing into their owners' eyes, leading to a 300% spike in the owners' oxytocin levels.

These findings suggest that human-dog interactions trigger the same type of oxytocin feedback loop seen between mothers and their infants, which may explain why we feel so close to our dogs.

The Evolutionary Significance of the Human-Dog Bond

The oxytocin feedback loop may have played a crucial role in the domestication of dogs. As wolves evolved into dogs, those capable of forming bonds with humans would have been more likely to receive care and protection. Conversely, humans may have evolved the ability to reciprocate this bonding, extending the maternal bonding system to a new species.

"I definitely think oxytocin was involved in domestication," says Jessica Oliva, a Ph.D. student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

 

black and white photograph of a puppy staring, locking eyes with you

The Psychological Benefits of the Human-Dog Bond

The bond between humans and their dogs isn't just about petting and playing fetch. Dogs seem to understand us in ways that no other animal does. They can read our intentions and emotions and respond in kind. This shared understanding and mutual affection can have profound psychological benefits.

"Pets alleviate social isolation because they are another living being to talk to, to care for, feed, take on walks, etc., and who we perceive loves us unconditionally and without judgment," says Katherine Compitus, a licensed clinical social worker and animal behaviorist.

The Health Benefits of the Human-Dog Bond

The human-dog bond isn't just emotionally rewarding; it can also have tangible health benefits. Interacting with dogs has been shown to lower cortisol levels in humans, reducing stress. Moreover, owning a dog has been linked to increased physical activity, improved cardiovascular health, and even longer life expectancy.

"We have found that dog owners fare better after a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or stroke, and the differences were largest in the single household group," says Tove Fall, a professor in molecular epidemiology at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden.

The Bond Extends Beyond Dogs

While dogs are the most studied pets, other animals—such as cats and horses—have also evolved alongside humans and are capable of forming special attachments to people. These bonds are likely to be mediated by similar physiological mechanisms, including the oxytocin feedback loop.

"In the case of dogs, the most ancient domestic species, the domestication process has influenced dog behavior, making these animals skillful in following human communication," says Marta Borgi, a researcher at the Center for Behavioral Sciences and Mental Health, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy.

 

The bond between humans and their dogs is a beautiful testament to the power of companionship. The simple act of gazing into your dog's eyes can strengthen this bond, promote mutual understanding, and offer a host of emotional and health benefits. So, the next time you find yourself staring into your dog's eyes, remember—you're not just expressing your love; you're also participating in a profound biological process that's been millions of years in the making.