Why you should gaze into your dog’s eyes
To quote George Elliot: “That quiet mutual gaze of a trusting husband and wife is like the first moment of rest or refuge from a great weariness or a great danger.” Locking eyes with a loved one triggers a powerful hormonal response, in particular the release of the hormone oxytocin. The more oxytocin absorbed by receptors in your brain, the more trusting, attached, and calm you’ll feel.
Have no trusting partner with whom to share that “quiet mutual gaze”? Not to worry: a new study led by biologist Miho Nagasawa at Azabu University in Japan has found that much of the same benefit can be gained from your pet dog.
Yes, dogs have been found to increase their owners’ oxytocin levels much in the same way that close human companions do. Nagasawa and his colleagues measured urinary oxytocin concentrations from 55 owners (male and female) just before and twenty minutes after interacting with their dogs. The owners were divided into two groups: those whose dogs gazed at them frequently and extensively (~150 seconds per gaze) during the half-hour interaction, and those whose dogs made less eye contact (<50 seconds). In a control experiment, the owners were forbidden to look at their dogs while interacting with them.
Owners who made extended eye contact with their dogs had significantly higher oxytocin levels in their urine after the experiment than beforehand. Owners who only made brief eye contact with their dog during the interaction didn’t have much of an oxytocin surge. Nor did any of the owners when they weren’t allowed to make eye contact with their pets. Duration of ownership and the gender of the owner and dog were ruled out as significant factors.
Oxytocin, conclude the researchers, works just as well for inter-species bonding as it does human bonding. A mutual gaze triggers semiautomatic attachment behavior, and it’s not limited to lovers and babies. The owner perceives an emotion in the animal’s gaze and anthropomorphically interprets it as mutual attachment. When the eye lock is extended and nonthreatening, we’re hardwired to reciprocate in kind (which, as I detail in BLONDES, is why it works so well for lovers). Oxytocin facilitates this bonding effect — and the owner feels emotionally closer and satisfied by the pet in the same way he or she might in a human relationship.
Do dogs get the same oxytocin rush from gazing at their human companion? It’s unclear. While humans gaze at their pets to fill their hearts and souls, our pets might gaze back to fill their stomachs or to establish dominance. But I’m not completely cynical. I have a precious Siamese cat who has been my companion since I was a teenager. She has chronic renal failure now. One of her eyes is a milky gray, the result of a cataract and luxated lens that the vet doesn’t want to fix. She rests on my lap as I write. Once in a while she picks up her head and gazes at me with her one blue eye, and I know she loves me too.