One of the many reasons dogs and humans are so well connected is through bonding. Dogs are fascinating creatures that are much more in-tune with us than we realise. We share our homes with them, feed them, give affection, walk them and happily pay for all of their needs.
But why are we so bonded to our dogs? Here is some insights into the science behind your furry (and sometimes slightly cunning) friend.
Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain. It's sometimes known as the "cuddle hormone" or the "love hormone," because it is released when people snuggle up or bond socially. Even interacting with your dog can cause an oxytocin surge. Oxytocin can also intensify memories of bonding gone bad, such as in cases where men have poor relationships with their mothers. It can also make people less accepting of people they see as outsiders.
The hormone oxytocin is important for wellbeing and harmony. Oxytocin plays an important role in childbirth and reproduction; it intensifies the bond between a mother and her young. It is released during labor and whilst breast-feeding, this enables the mother to develop a strong emotional attachment; therefor ensuring the young are not neglected and are well looked after.
Dogs also stimulate oxytocin in humans, as we do in them. Studies show that the stroking of a dog is very therapeutic and calming. This is for the animal kingdom as it is for humans. During stroking special pathways transmit stimuli to the brain and trigger a cascade of positive feelings. Blood circulating is stimulated, production of cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced, and the emotional connection to the human doing the stroking is intensified. The hormone oxytocin has demonstrable benefits: circulation is improved and blood pressure lowered, stress hormone level is reduced, and the immune system is activated.
Like human infants, the domestic dog displays attachment behaviors to humans that are absent in even intensively hand-reared wolves; it appears as though the domestication of dogs and subsequent exploitation of them as human companion animals has facilitated the formation of human-dog bonding.
Left gaze bias
When we meet another person, our gaze normally scans the right side of their face. The left side of our brain controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain controls the left side. It’s the left hemisphere of the brain that controls how we show emotion, which is displayed on the right side of our face. It’s something we all do subconsciously.
Somewhere along the line in our evolution, we began a left gaze bias to help us determine how another person is feeling. The left side of our face shows almost no emotion because the right side of the brain has a different function and doesn’t control our emotional state of mind. Looking at the right side of the face is called left gaze bias.
How do dogs use it?
Researches, lead by Dr. Kun Guo, studied 17 dogs. Each dog was shown photos of inanimate objects, monkey faces, human faces and dog faces while being videotaped. The dog’s eye and head movements were the focus of the tape. When the researchers watched the tape, they discovered all of the dogs had eye and head movements toward the left side of the face (left gaze bias) only when shown human faces. They concluded that dogs have a strong left gaze bias when looking at human faces.
It’s believed dogs evolved and developed left gaze bias and can see our emotions because of their long association with us. Dogs learned centuries ago to read our emotions by looking at the left side of our face. The interesting thing about this study is it looks like dogs are one up on us. When the researchers flipped the pictures of human faces over, the dogs were able to distinguish the difference and still showed the same strong left gaze bias. When we look at an upside down face, we lose our left gaze bias altogether.
Like humans, dogs also use the left gaze bias to read faces for hints as to how someone is feeling or what their mood may be. Dogs need this ability to read how we are feeling, whether we mean them harm, or are happy to see them etc. This explains yet another reason why dogs are so in-tune with us, and what’s more impressive is that they have developed this ability just to appease us in a relatively short period of time.
If you look at the human-dog relationship, which has evolved over 20,000 years, it is unique and unbelievably strong. Dogs are so finely tuned to us, they scan our faces to gauge our emotions and bond with us wholeheartedly, completely without judgement.