A new report in the journal Science finds that the continuous loop of loving connection between dog and owner may begin with the dog’s gaze.
Jan Hoffman of the New York Times reports…
Japanese researchers found that dogs who trained a long gaze on their owners had elevated levels of oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain that is associated with nurturing and attachment, similar to the feel-good feedback that bolsters bonding between parent and child. After receiving those long gazes, the owners’ levels of oxytocin increased too.
The dog’s gaze cues connection and response in the owner, who will reward the dog by gazing, talking and touching, all of which helps solder the two, the researchers said. They suggest that dogs became domesticated in part by adapting to a primary human means of contact: eye-to-eye communication.
And when researchers gave dogs extra oxytocin through a nasal spray, the female dogs (though not the males) gazed at their owners even longer, which in turn boosted the owners’ oxytocin levels.
“What’s unique about this study is that it demonstrates that oxytocin can boost social gaze interaction between two very different species,” said Steve Chang, an assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology at Yale who was not involved in this latest research.
“In a way, domesticated dogs could hijack our social circuits, and we can hijack their social circuits,” he said in an email, as each species learned how to raise the other’s oxytocin levels, facilitating connection.
Other experts on canine behavior expressed caution about overstating the implications of the study.
Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, called the study “a fascinating direction of research, because it looks at connections between behavioral measures and hormonal components.” She noted that it raised many intriguing questions: about long and short gazes; why only female dogs reacted to the oxytocin dose; whether other breeds would yield different results. But pointing to the small size of the sample, she added, “I don’t know how it proves the domestication thesis.”
Dog owners may ascribe similar complexity to their dog’s gaze, certain that they, like parents, can interpret it. (A view endorsed by this owner of a Havenese, whose eager, soulful gaze is both long and expressive, punctuated by cocking his head, and fluttering his ears forward. Speaks volumes.) “If your dog’s gaze helps you think your dog understands you,” said Dr. Horowitz, ” that produces bonding.”
But Evan L. MacLean, co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition center and a co-authorof a commentary accompanying this study, said “We don’t know what the dog’s gaze means. When you look at a human baby, it feels good. Maybe dogs gaze at your because it feels good. Maybe the dogs are hugging you with their eyes?”
But Dr. MacLean, an evolutionary anthropologist, said that fundamentally, for dogs, human behavior is “the telltale of everything that is about to happen.” Are we going to stand or sit? Leave the room? Bring food?
And so they stare at us, fixedly.
“If I was dropped on Mars,” Dr. Maclean said, “and everyone was speaking a language I didn’t understand, and I knew I could never acquire their language, I’d just give up. But dogs don’t. They’re not reluctant to tune in to us at every moment.”
April 16, 2015