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Unlike skunks, dogs are a paws-on species, both with us and one another. One doesn’t need to look further than YouTube for examples of dogs saying “Pet me please. Yeah, there you have it, just a little bit more”.
However, this is not a one-side relationship. Studies have indicated that a positive interaction between dogs and people can benefit both species. Researchers found an increase in beta-endorphin, dopamine and oxytocin – neurochemicals that are associated with bonding and positive feelings – in both people and dogs after enjoyable interactions like play, petting and talking. Spending time with a known dog activates the same neurophysiological markers as when two attached people spend time with each other. Now, the question is “Do certain interactions have more impact than others?”
Studies conducted to unravel the underlying neurological mechanism
Dogs pay close attention to human faces, and in certain cases, even facial expressions. Although your dog turning his face to gaze at you might seem benign and routine on the surface, it plays an important role in your mutual relationship. A new study in Japan found that dogs and owners that share a long gaze had higher oxytocin levels in their urine compared to dogs that gazed for a shorter period of time. Oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone, plays a key role in social bonding as well as prenatal and post-natal hormonal changes in women. So, according to the study, the gaze between a human and a dog has the same properties as that between a mother and her child.
The researchers also performed a second experiment to confirm the causal link between the act of gazing and the release of oxytocin. 30 dogs were administered an intranasal spray of either saline or oxytocin. They observed that dogs that were given oxytocin gazed longer at their owners compared to the dogs that were given saline. Moreover, this also stimulated more oxytocin secretion in the owners. These effects were not seen between the dogs and unfamiliar people.
Does co-evolution has a role to play?
This research feeds into the ongoing debate about whether biological synchronization between humans and dogs indicates a co-evolution of dog-human bonds. The researchers also investigated whether an oxytocin spike was also observable when wolf pets interacted with a known human. They noticed that the wolves did not hold their gaze for more than a few seconds. Testing co-evolution can be quite tricky. While it is an exciting idea to include wolves in the study, the differences do not necessarily prove co-evolution. Moreover, it is also a question of numbers. While 60 dogs contributed to the first study, there were just five wolves that were tested.