It’s quite common for dog-lovers to refer to their furry friends as their children, and it reflects an underlying truth - often, we love dogs as much as any human member of our family.
Now the extent of our bond with our pets has been explained by science. Researchers at Azabu University in Japan have found that when we look at our dogs, we experience a surge in our levels of oxytocin - also known as the bonding hormone.
Luckily, the feeling’s mutual - when owners spend time petting or playing with their dogs, the animals get that same spike in oxytocin levels, helping us all to create those precious lifelong relationships.
As part of the research, participants were allowed to spend thirty minutes with their pups, and provided urine samples so that oxytocin levels could be measured. The longer the owners spent looking at their pets, the more oxytocin was found in their samples.
Researchers then tried to replicate the results with hand-raised wolves and their handlers, but found the wolves would only look at the humans for a few seconds. This led them to the idea that dogs evolved this bonding tendency after they were domesticated by humans.
The results of the experiments explain why we can feel overcome with love when spending time with our animal companions. Interestingly, the same process takes place when parents spend time with their children.
Scientists believe that this hormonal response originally evolved to help mothers to bond with their newborn babies, particularly while breastfeeding.
In an article published alongside the research, Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of the Duke Canine Cognition Center in North Carolina explained: “The benefits of assistance dogs for individuals with autism or post-traumatic stress disorder - conditions for which oxytocin is currently being used as an experimental treatment - may arise partly through these social pathways.”
The pair also described the process of oxytocin bonding as “a powerful mechanism through which dogs win our hearts, and we win theirs in return”.
Written by: Hannah Dyball