Good Chemistry: Bonding Hormone Strengthens Canine-Human Relationship

Good Chemistry: Bonding Hormone Strengthens Canine-Human Relationship

A retriever’s gaze is a powerful thing, whether he’s looking into your eyes while delivering a fat greenhead or simply resting his head on your knee. Anyone with a duck dog has felt it: Those deep brown eyes proclaiming loyalty, respect and profound love more clearly than any audible communiqué.

As it turns out, there’s a biochemical layer to the phenomenon. According to researchers in Japan, when you lock eyes with your dog, the bonding hormone oxytocin floods your bloodstream as well as your dog’s. Such oxytocin surges are typically reserved for parents gazing into the eyes of their babies.

For the study, published in the journal Science, researchers observed 30 dog owners playing with their pets for a half hour. Oxytocin levels were then tested, revealing dramatic spikes among those who most frequently gazed into their dogs’ eyes. Their dogs mirrored the increase as well.

When and how dogs acquired the advantage of this biological mechanism — which likely strengthened their role in human civilization — remains a matter of speculation. However, it appears to be unique among domesticated canines. The study was repeated with wolves raised in human care, with no effect on oxytocin levels.

“[The findings] reveal a powerful mechanism through which dogs win our hearts, and we win theirs in return,” wrote Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, in an accompanying Science article. “The benefits of assistance dogs for individuals with autism or post-traumatic stress disorder … may arise partly through these social pathways.”

What do the findings mean for duck hunters? The value of establishing eye contact with our retrievers while hunting, training and in daily life should not be underestimated. Savvy trainers have long professed its usefulness in maintaining our dogs’ focus. But it may also help hunter and retriever to become a more closely bonded, effective team.