by Amy Robinson
Sniff & Barkens’ Dog Expert
A puppy’s face is a powerful draw. Resistance is futile when caught by that look of trust and love coming from their big, brown eyes.
It turns out there is science behind the look of love coming from our canines. Researchers have found a link between the nurturing response felt by mothers making eye contact with their human babies and the emotions that wash over us when we hold the gaze of our dogs. This research is telling, since in the world of dogs making eye contact can be an aggressive act. The longer the eye contact between two dogs, the more intimidating or challenging it can appear, but when interacting with us, dogs will accept and even initiate prolonged soft eye contact.
Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviorist at Azabu University in Japan, carried out a series of experiments as part of a new study that examined the impact of eye contact between dogs and their owners. Kikusui’s team found that when owners gazed into their dogs’ eyes during a 30-minute period, levels of the hormone oxytocin, linked to feelings of trust and maternal bonding, increased in both the humans and the dogs. “Our data suggest that owner/dog bonding is comparable to human parent/infant bonding, that is, oxytocin-mediated eye-gaze bonding,” Kikusui said. “And this is surprising to us because there is not a reproductive relationship between human and dogs, but both of them have acquired similar skills.”
Puppies try our patience and that of their canine mothers, hanging from her ears and nipping at her legs when they aren’t sapping her strength during long periods of nursing, but the bonding between mothers and their puppies is hard-wired into the entire pregnancy and birthing process, ensuring that the love stays strong when the puppies need her most. The passage through the birth canal during labor and the mother’s subsequent licking and sniffing of the puppies cement the bonding for the period during which the pups are most dependent on mom: progesterone levels are reduced and estrogen levels increase, as do those of prolactin and oxytocin. Cesarean sections, during which the mother dog is under sedation and does not experience the birth naturally, can interrupt this process of intense bonding and rob the mother of this important step. These mother dogs may not be as solicitous of their young as those giving birth as nature intended.
In the human/puppy relationship, the pup has been weaned from its mother, but then identifies the human owner as the new caretaker. The same cuteness and helplessness that kept their mother close to them is transferred to us, and they get away with behavior that would likely not be tolerated from an adult dog or for that matter, an older child. Puppies can chew chair legs, soil rugs, yap for hours in the middle of the night – and still we refrain from leaving them in a basket on somebody’s front stoop with a note! Their rounded heads and big eyes are similarly shaped to those of mammalian babies, including humans. Think of these popular breeds: King Charles spaniel, French bulldog and Chihuahua. Through selective breeding, their appearance has come to resemble that of human babies (minus the fur), so they encourage our nurturing side.
This loving relationship is certainly not just one-way. Owners who think their dogs see them only as kibble dispensers should tune in to their affectionate displays throughout the day. Following us through the house when it is not close to dinner time, or lying down under the desk and uttering a big sigh as we work reflects their desire to be near us even if they are not the center of attention. When your dog approaches you and looks into your face, take a moment to revel in the love.
Once puppies turn into adults, they remain dependents in our households. Perhaps that is the overarching reason behind our deep love for our dogs, lasting long after the puppy cuteness has disappeared. Even with graying muzzles and slower gaits, they are perpetually children – our children. They don’t turn into sulky teenagers embarrassed to be seen with us, or take our credit cards, or dent our new cars before striking out on their own, shifting their loyalties from their parents to new loves. The dog’s bond stays at home with us, unbending and steadfast until the end of their short lives.