That Soulful (and Loving) Gaze

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in social bonding, as implied by some of its nicknames: the love hormone, cuddle chemical, or bliss hormone. It’s also something that dogs and humans share.

Studies published in 2009 found that, when dogs gazed at their owners — you know, that adoring gaze that says, “feed me; I’m yours,” owners had more oxytocin in their urine. This correlates with feeling affection and social connection.

You can see where this is going, right? They gaze at us, we interpret it as adoration, we respond by feeling loved and happy. This works well for the dog. For us, too; real or not, we have that great “someone loves me” feeling.

But there’s more to this story. A later study looked at more variables. For example, the oxytocin in dogs’ urine. Did they get the same emotional lift out of the exchange of adoring gazes? Also whether interaction with the humans affected oxytocin in either humans or dogs.

This is where things get interesting.

A note: In both studies, dogs and wolves were used, as a way to determine whether this was just a canine thing, or whether it really has to do with the dog-human relationship.

First, the study looked at the effects if the person and dog exchanged gazes only, versus when the person also interacted with the dog, talking to her or petting her. No one was given oxytocin in this study; dogs’ and humans’ levels were measured before and after. The dogs and owners who spent the longest time gazing and interacting with each other had significant increases in their oxytocin levels — the dogs’ levels as well as the people’s. The dogs like the attention — even you, Jana! The gaze-only dogs and the shorter-gazing couples had small or no increases. Neither did the wolves.

A variation of the study had researchers administer oxytocin to some of the dogs to see whether the amount of oxytocin in their bodies made a difference. Then, the dogs and humans were allowed to gaze at each other, but the humans were not allowed to intentionally interact. If the dogs touched the humans, it was noted, but the humans were not allowed to respond by petting or talking to the dog.

So, was there a change in the dogs’ behavior if they had higher (administered) oxytocin? There was — but only for female dogs. With more oxytocin, they gazed at their humans for a significantly longer time; the length of their gaze at a stranger wasn’t affected. Male dogs actually gazed at their owners longer if they had not received oxytocin. The wolves didn’t really gaze at the people.

Not to knock boy dogs, but … maybe they’re just not that into you.

Seriously, what this all means — according to the researchers, anyhow — is that a mutually reinforcing loop occurs (particularly with girl dogs). They gaze at us, we look back, babble nonsense at them, rub their bellies … Hmmm, how do they gaze at us while we’re rubbing their bellies? OK, we stroke their long, soft ears and gaze back into their eyes. And everyone feels all warm and mushy and loved, so the girls keep staring at us, to keep this good thing going. More gazing, more oxytocin, so more and longer gazing, and the cycle continues.

Gazing is important in human social bonding and communication, starting when babies nurse. Lots of research shows that dogs use humans’ gaze as communication — and use their own gaze to communicate with us. And, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, dogs choose to hang out with us. All that, to me, adds up to a mutual bond that is very rewarding to all of us, including the dogs. That, and they need someone with working thumbs around to get access to their dinner.

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