I was sitting on my sofa reading an article in a scientific journal when I glanced up for a moment. A few feet away from me my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, was lying in his dog bed and his head popped up. He gazed at me with his big dark eyes. It was just a look from a young dog, but somehow it made me feel warm and loved. However, a few moments later that part of my brain which is concerned with psychology and research kicked in. I began to wonder if other people also felt that same warmth and feeling of bonding based upon simple eye contact with their pet.
I left the comfort of my sofa and began to look through my research files, and sure enough there actually was some research on this topic. A team of researchers working at Azabu University in Japan published the paper in the scientific journal Hormones and Behavior. Miho Nagasawa, Takefumi Kikusui, Tatsushi Onaka, and Mitsuaki Ohta were unwilling to accept merely the self-report of people like me who felt that their dog simply looking at them made them feel better. Instead they went on a scientific hunt to see if they could find some chemical or hormonal verification.
It turns out that developmental psychologists have already established the fact that gaze, in the sense of making direct eye contact, is an important factor in the attachment between a mother and her child. When a child gazes at his or her caretaker it is interpreted as either an expression of affection or a request for some sort of interaction. The link to dogs comes from the fact that a survey conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association reports that 75% of dog owners consider their pets to be pretty much the equivalent of young children. Most pet owners seem to treat and respond to the signals that dogs give out in much the same way that they would respond to signals from a child.
The experiment designed by these Japanese researchers was fairly straightforward in its conception, although the actual measurement and analysis involved technical sophistication. Fifty-five people and their pet dogs served as participants. They first took a questionnaire which assessed how strong their bond was with their dog in terms of their feelings of satisfaction and how frequently they communicated with their dog. On the basis of that questionnaire individuals with strong bonds were separated from those with weaker bonds to their pets.
Now here is where the sophistication comes in. This scientific team decided that they were going to use the concentration of oxytocin as their marker for affection. Oxytocin is a hormone which many researchers believe is associated with social interactions and affection. Some have gone as far as calling it the "love hormone". The oxytocin concentration was obtained in the human participants' urine, which was collected before and after each test session.
The experiment itself involved two conditions, one in which the dog and its owner were allowed to interact. The human could not move around but had to remain in his or her chair but they could talk with the dog, give it instructions, such as simple commands, and make eye contact with the dog. In the control condition the dog and the person were both in the same room but the human was instructed not to make any eye contact with the dog. The actual amount of eye contact between dog and owner was assessed from a videotape of the interactions.
The findings were interesting. It had been expected to that the oxytocin level in the human would rise based on the dog and owner making visual contact, and it did, but only for the group which had the stronger bond— that is for the owners who communicated more frequently with their dog and felt most satisfied with their pet. Those owners with weaker bonds to their dog did not seem to benefit from the dogs gazing at them.
The dogs that were well-bonded to their owners tended to gaze at them a lot more, and the data confirmed that the more they gazed at their owners the higher the oxytocin levels rose, suggesting that their human caretaker's feelings of well-being, and of being loved, were also rising.
So the bottom line seems to be that dogs do have a "look of love" which can tug at your heartstrings and make you feel better—but only if you already have an affectionate bond with that dog.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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