The Look of Love

It bonds people and dogs
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2015, Updated June 2021
puppy gazing into eyes

You gaze into your dog’s eyes. Your dog gazes back at you. It’s true love, right? Yes, absolutely! And it’s not just any kind of love, but perhaps one of the most powerful kinds of love that exists—the love between mother and child.

So says a new study published in the prestigious journal Science called ”Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the co-evolution of human-dog bonds.” This research provides evidence that our feelings of love for dogs are mutual and are in part a result of looking into one another’s eyes, just like mothers and babies do to form their strong attachment.

In humans, it has been shown that mothers who spend more time in mutual gazing with their babies have higher levels of oxytocin. (Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a large role in the formation of social bonds as well as feelings of love.) Additionally, there is a positive feedback loop in humans. Mothers with higher oxytocin levels engage in more mothering behavior, which affects oxytocin levels in their babies. That in turn leads to higher levels of attachment, which increases oxytocin levels in mothers, leading to more maternal behavior, and so on.

The purpose of this new research was to investigate whether humans and dogs also have a positive-feedback loop in which oxytocin plays a role, and if so to learn whether gazing is a part of the process. In one part of the study, researchers measured levels of oxytocin in the urine of people and their dogs both before and after they interacted. They found that in pairs in which the dogs gazed at their guardians for a long time, levels of oxytocin rose in both the people and the dogs.

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In the second part of the study, experimenters examined whether giving oxytocin to dogs affected their gazing behavior or the oxytocin levels of their guardians. Researchers gave oxytocin to dogs (intranasally) and observed that female dogs given this chemical gazed at their owners for longer periods of time than female dogs given saline as a control. (It didn’t affect male dogs the same way.) Even though they were not given oxytocin, guardians’ levels of this hormone increased after interacting with female dogs who had received it. Researchers are not sure why the behavior of female, but not male, dogs was affected by the oxytocin.

This research suggests that the bond we feel with our dogs is not only similar to the bond between mothers and children, but that the mechanism behind the connection is the same. This type of attachment between different species is rare and continues to interest scientists and dog lovers alike. It’s possible that the process of domestication of the dog was possible in part because dogs co-opted the social communication and social bonding process of babies.

Do you feel the love when you and your dog gaze into one another’s eyes?

Photo: iStock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life