Oxytocin is well known as the “feel good” hormone, and over the course of millennia, it has played a role in several important evolutionary developments in mammals, including humans and dogs.
Now a new study by Miho Nagasawa, of Azabu University in Japan, published in Science magazine, asserts that oxytocin contributed to the domestication of wolves, and ultimately to the modern dog. (Though linguist Elaine Chaika recently challenged the established idea that modern dogs descended from wolves.)
Part of the reason for this is that oxytocin helped to establish mutual trust and selflessness between members of a group. Since dogs share our food, shelter, and companionship, they can certainly be thought of as members of a group.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the researchers observed that interaction between dogs and their owners caused them each to secrete oxytocin. Amazingly, the team also found that the dogs who gazed at their people the most during the interactions had the biggest rise in oxytocin, as did their human owners!
This made them investigate further: They sprayed a small amount of oxytocin up the dogs’ noses (some got a placebo—saline—for a control group). The oxytocin caused the female dogs to gaze more at their humans, and, as before, the recipient of the gaze had a spike in oxytocin secretion, too.
This phenomenon only occurred in dogs, and, interestingly, only in ones who were familiar with the human they were gazing out. Even wolves that had been hand-reared didn’t show a rise in oxytocin levels.
All of this led the researchers to conclude that at least some of the credit for the human-canine bond belongs to this oxytocin, which accounts for many other warm-and-fuzzy feelings.
The study is not without detractors, who say that the claims about oxytocin’s specific role in the canine-human can’t be proven, and that it is the brain itself that evolved, not the hormone.
But it is amazing to think that just by looking at us, our dogs can make us feel good. And that we return the favor when we return the gaze.
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