Oxytocin Increases When Your Dog Looks at You

A friend and colleague (Toni Ziegler, an internationally known primatologist) sent me an article in a journal I usually never see, Hormones and Behavior, and I was sure you’d be as interested in it as I am. The authors, M. Nagasawa et. al., found a correlation between the level of an owner’s oxytocin and how much their dog tended to gaze directly at them.

First off, you probably know that oxytocin is the “feel good” hormone that is associated with lactation and social bonding. Someone called it the “wine and candle light” hormone, because it seems to play an important role in social relationships and feelings of trust and affection. (People are more trusting of strangers if oxytocin is sprayed into their nose–leading me to speculate in For the Love of a Dog that we should all be armed with a spray bottle of the stuff). Oxytocin correlates with friendly social behavior in rats, monkey, sheep, you name it, and even has been found to calm “depressive tendencies” and anxiety in people.

The authors of the study first surveyed 55 people to evaluate the level of relationship with their dogs. (They asked: “How much are you satisfied with your dog?” and “How much do you feel you can communicate with your dog?” Of course, if I’d been asking, my questions might include “How often to you rub your dog’s belly?” and “How important is your dog in your overall happiness?” and “How many months would you say you spend more on your dog than yourself?” and “Don’t you think you should consider buying yourself a new pair of pants before you buy another dog toy?” But then, it wasn’t my study….)

Each owner/dog pair then came to the researchers, and was video taped in a room with the owner sitting in a chair. At first the owner was alone in the room for 20 minutes, then the dog was allowed in for 30 minutes. Once inside, the dog was allowed to move around the room freely, but was asked to sit on cue every 3 minutes. The owners could talk to their dogs and pet them, but not give the dogs treats. Before and after, the owner’s heart rate and blood pressure was taken, and they were asked to provide a urine sample both before and after as well.

Here are some of the results: The 55 owners sorted into 2 groups: 12 of them reported high levels of satisfaction with their dogs and ALSO had the longest duration of times that their dog’s looked (“gazed”) at them during the experiment. Those people, whose dogs looked at them the most, also had significantly higher levels of oxytocin after the experiment than the people who reported lower levels of satisfaction and whose dogs looked at them for shorter periods of time. Additionally, there was a significant correlation between the frequency of “exchange bouts” (looking, talking) initiated by a dog’s gaze and the level of oxytocin in the owner’s body. In other words, the more the dog looked at the owner, the higher the level of oxytocin IF the owner was one of the one who reported a high level of satisfaction in their dog. There was no correlation between duration of gaze and oxytocin levels in the (larger) group who reported less satisfaction and whose dogs looked at them for shorter periods of time.

What does all this mean? Well, if you put your science hat on, you know to be careful of correlations. It seems reasonable and (common sensible) to argue that IF you are strongly bonded to your dog, then you have a surge of oxytocin when he or she looks at you and you look back. (I think my oxytocin is rising right now, just thinking about Lassie’s face!). However, I’ve always wondered if some individuals inherently have lower levels of oxytocin and that makes them less affiliative with others, a bit more stand off-ish. Dogs too? Could that explain why some dogs are puddles around people and others more aloof? Levels of oxytocin do correlate in mice, for example, with less or more affiliative behavior, so it seems reasonable that it could occur in people too.

That could create another hypothesis for the results. Do people with inherently higher levels of oxytocin tend to be more bonded to their dogs? However, a good study should account for this, and indeed, there were no significant differences between oxytocin levels before the experiment between the 2 groups of people. So it looks as though it was the interaction itself, during the 30 minutes that the dog and owner were together, that increased oxytocin levels. Although none of us can accurately guage our oxytocin levels without measurements, I swear there’s a feeling I get that correlates with an oxytocin surge. It’s the way you feel when you look at a puppy, or a kitten, or a two year old child… and get what I can only describe as “goo-ey” and “warm” and just overwhelmed with loving feelings. Know what I mean? Do you thank that is part of what makes a dog a “forever” dog or a “heart dog?”

Whether we can feelย  it or not, oxytocin has got to be good for us. Remember when I said that oxytocin decreases anxiety? It seems to have a positive effect on many systems: it is produced in the hypothalamus and decreases activity of what’s called the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis” (use that when you want to be cool, you could also just call it the stress response though!) In other words, more oxytocin, less adrenalin, less anxiety, less immune suppression, etc. We’ve always known our dogs are good for us (mostly… unless, uh, they’re not), but here’s a biological explanation for it beyond the fact that they make us feel good.

Speaking of oxytocin (with apologies for indulging myself), here’s a photograph I found last night, buried in files on my computer. I wasn’t going to use it, but it makes me all goo-ey and oxytocin-y to look at it, so I thought it was relevant. It’s of me and my Tulip long ago, several years before she passed away. Here’s hoping you have a dog right now that raises your oxytocin too.

And here’s another feel good picture, fall leaves that fell this weekend after a hard, hard freeze.



  1. Cassie says

    My best friend is as much an animal lover as I am. There have been many times when we’ve seen a cute puppy or big sweet old lady dog that she says “I think I’m lactating.”
    It’s just a joke of course, but I guess it is the same basic feeling!

    On another note, my little pit bull Jethro and I share tons of eye contact, and I don’t doubt that he keeps my oxytocin levels up. I’ve never had a dog like this before, but since the day I found him (all stinky and scabby and mange covered) he’s been the love of my life. When he looks at me, waiting to see what our next move is, it really does give me the same feeling of love and responsibility that my nieces do. It’s a bit overwhelming at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.

  2. DKM says

    Oxytocin? I should have guessed. I lost my heart dog on Friday to a car; the pet owner’s nightmare. He escaped out of the motel room along with 3 others and after succesfully recalling them , I went the wrong way looking for him. He was totally panicked and ran to his death.
    So I am truly oxytocin deprived and feeling physical pain because he’s no longer here to reinforce our chemical bond? Thank you for this particular tidbit. It helps. Doesn’t make the grieving easier, but makes it scientifically understandable and means once the chemicals in my body adjust, life will assume some sort of equilibrium, if a rather dull one because the spark is gone.

  3. says

    I think that picture of you and Tulip raised my oxytocin level. What a wonderful moment captured for all time.

    I have a great bond with my dog, Dahlia, and she does spend a lot of time looking at us and wanting to be near us. She’s happiest rolled over on her back with both her people rubbing her belly. It doesn’t surprise me that looking at her raises the oxytocin level in my system. I often feel like I want to explode with happiness when I look at her.

  4. Alexandra says

    I do think there is an oxytocin connection of go-oey (I love that) feelings that makes the difference in a dog that you love and a dog that feels like your forever, doggie soul mate.

    Of my two dogs, one is somewhat aloof and it took quite a lot of learning on my part and the guidance of a professional trainer to form any kind of real bond with her (she was a rescue with a lot of fear; interestingly, a lot of that work involved rewarding her for initiating eye contact with me). We’ve come a very long way, but it was a rough road for a while and she still has her moments. Don’t get me wrong, I love her very much, but it’s not the same as how I feel about my other dog, and I feel very disloyal for saying that even though it’s true. I absolutely ADORE that dog. I dote on him. I could gaze at him for hours. I get all happy, warm, and fuzzy, just thinking about him. I could go on, but I feel this sudden urge to go pet him!

  5. Amy says

    Great post. I just made my non-blog reading husband read it, and he immediately felt the need to go give the girls some lubbing…

    DKM: Oh, how horrific. I am so sorry for your loss. Peace be with you.

  6. Jennifer Hamilton says

    My dog stares me down with that, “I know you have more in store for me today than just this. Please don’t tell me this is all you lined up because I’m better than the boring day we’ve had so far!”. While giving me this multiple minute stare down, she will occasionally belch in a way that her lips curl up and expose her teeth and stay there…all the while she keeps staring as if nothing just happened. She starts out with a tremendous amount of dignity and loses it all with an unsuspecting belch and an unintentional shit-eating grin. It makes me melt and laugh all at the same time!

  7. Mateus Freua says

    It’s so beautiful know that the OT is the hormone of trust and affection. It’s one thing that makes completely sense: some cows and buffalos just release their milk (OT release) if the calf is on your feet. Is it a beautiful nature relation, isn’t?

  8. says

    I wonder if people who train using positive reinforcement, no physical or psychological aversive punishment ( whatever the latest term is) have higher levels of Oxytocin in their systems or just more of it on an ongoing basis?

    I am a fan of your methods (especially thankful of your ‘Feeling Outnumbered” and “Feisty Fido”) and I was just thinking … I wonder if I am a gooey person because positive reinforcement provides so many opportunities for your dogs to keep their eyes peeled on you (wouldn’t want to miss out on something tasty, fun, cuddly or adventurous).

    Each one of my dogs, and fosters have a place in my heart (hard to give fosters up) and I am certain one of the reasons is the rush I get over time as we learn to communicate and our bond deepens.

    Even if I have to put on my thinking cap and come up with something creative so they understand what I’m trying to help them overcome a fear or unflattering social behaviour, in the process, there’s something so special when the lightbulb goes off. I wonder if having the freedom think and try something new without fear, intimidation or any physically uncomfortable “wrong answer” contributes to getting lost in each other’s eyes :) which means a steady flow of Oxytocin.

  9. says

    An interesting article! I’m thinking about my little crew here and the different relationships I have with each and now wondering about that in the context of eye contact we make with one another.

    I have one Pom, Misty, a beautiful little girl who came to us when her person died of cancer. Misty was born with crippled back legs, and though she moves awkwardly, she’s just a gorgeous, full-coated black & tan Pom with a white blaze and white paws (we call them ‘Jackie O’ gloves). Misty gives a LOT of eye contact with family and even more with strangers. She loves everyone but adores men — particularly big, tall, deep-voiced men — and she will lie on her cushion and simper and flirt (pat her paws on the bed, roll over and wiggle, snort, and then make goo-goo eyes) at men until they buckle. And funnily enough … THEY ALL BUCKLE. These big guys you’d normally think of with big dogs just succumb to Misty. It’s a hoot. She stopped a 6’3″ phone guy in his tracks in the backyard (“a Pom-Pom!” he cried, before reaching for her), got one plumber to cross three rooms just to bend down and pet her …and pet her … and pet her. While she continued to flirt and do the Bambi-gaze at him. ::blinkblinkblink::

    Oxytocin? Quite possibly. Misty might say it’s just the world spinning ’round her as it should.

    And on a sidebar: DKM, I am so sorry to read of your loss, here. I’ve been thinking of you since I saw that post yesterday.

    And a second sidebar: Dr. McConnell, what a moving photo of you and your lovely Tulip.

  10. jenny schmidt says

    [IMG]http://i56.photobucket.com/albums/g161/gr_ace_hpns/recovery.jpg[/IMG] this is how my “jaeger” calmed his mum, after surgery. daily, he would join me on my chaise, and position himself and literally watch me fall asleep. but as much of his body as he could plaster next to mine (see toes in the background) is where he needed to be.. such a sweet boy he is.

  11. Liz F. says

    Beautiful, beautiful pictures… thank you.

    I like kate’s question of the potential link between positive reinforcement & oxytocin. Two separate married couples I am close with do not use positive training methods with their collective of five dogs. I wish them all much more happiness, and hope sharing this article helps.

    Thanks for leaving me warm and fuzzy on a dreary, rainy day!

  12. Deb says

    I am so glad Susannah posted this on Facebook!!! I have always known in my heart there was a correlation between the feeling I had while breastfeeding my children and my bond with my goldens!!!
    I am just a big oxytocin junkie!

    My golden retriever Selka, age ten, is a certified therapy/hospice dog and I am so glad to know that he gave some good gooey feelings to all the people he has worked with over the years. He literally saved my life and is my cuddle boy. He stares into my eyes all the time. I had never believed that crap about not making eye contact with a dog. maybe a strange dog but all my goldens have been big on eye contact!

    I will be reading your blog regularly now!

  13. says

    Thank you for the post!! I love reading about current research and the lab in which I work focuses on various aspects of inflammation (stress) and how it relates to chronic illness and shifts in immune function at the molecular (i.e. signaling) level. We are a large group, and have several other areas of interest as well, but this is what we have been reviewing lately in our “journal club” (a meeting once a week to talk about current research in the field).

    So far as how much hormone levels could alter our interaction with other individuals, I would have to remain on the fence (though it DOES, and I’m aware of that). In general, I am a nice person but have been told I fit the “cold, black-and-white mentality” of the stereotypical scientist quite well. This is mainly my personality type, but the exception, for me anyway, seems to be canines. I completely lose my marbles when the Aussie puppy next door comes outside or my big dog is being exceptionally cute. In all other aspects of my life emotion plays a minor role and in most cases can be completely put aside for the purposes of my profession, but when it comes to anything dog related I become the “gooey” person you all have described, completely gushing over my or other people’s dogs.

    This raises several questions for me:
    1. Are some people predisposed to an attachment to a species other than their own? The same can be asked of our canine companions. There are, of course, lots of factors that play into a dog’s relationship with their human(s) but maybe this is a “predisposition” for dogs who easily attach to ANYONE. My big dog is a one owner kind of pup and is typically friendly, but aloof with everyone but me (and that bond took a while to build).

    2. Why do some individuals exhibit all the signs you mentioned (including increases in oxytocin) but do not have an affinity for dogs (only their own species, particularly children)?

    3. Personality can obviously alter these results and I’m glad the researchers assessed the person’s happiness with their dog’s performance. I would think someone who would be willing to volunteer would want to please (having done human research, this is normally the case), so if their dog isn’t responding as they were asked it could have created anxiety on the part of the participant, ultimately changing their hormone profile.

    I recently read an article that discussed dogs versus wolves in regard to the ability to accept information from a human who is a stranger to them (focusing specifically on pointing behaviors). This article said that dogs are more likely to look AT what the human is pointing at, while the wolf (given similar previous interaction with humans and at the same age) looks at the human’s finger and can’t “infer” what the person is asking of them. Could this change in hormones be one more example of canines adapting???

    Great post and I’m very glad you chose to share the moment captured with you and Tulip!

  14. Alexandra says

    DKM, I am so sorry for you loss. May you find peace and joy again soon.

    Sirius, I think you raise some very interesting questions. I have always wondered whether or not humans have a genetic component that predisposes them to bond with animals or not. I would speculate yes, although upbringing and culture certainly seem to play a role. But, if some people expereince differing amounts of oxytocin for different species, I think the role of genetics would seem to be significant. I also think it would be a beneficial gene to have, and thus be passed on, when you think of how incredibly important domestic animals are to our survival. At some point in the dim past, I envision an early human bringing the first semi-feral village puppy into their hut simply because it was cute, you know?

  15. Trisha says

    How can I not respond to each and every one of you?!

    To Cassie: I love the “lactating” comment. I’ve used it myself in seminars and usually appall one or two people, but the rest laugh so what the heck.

    To DKM: Oh oh oh. Words feel so thin and inadequate, but I am so very very sorry for your loss. I hope that you are surrounded by support and nurturing. Be as kind to yourself as you can, and try to remind yourself that “stuff” happens no matter how hard we try to avoid it and how good and responsible we are. I’m sending hugs and sympathy and the knowledge that “there-but-by-the-grace of . . .”

    To Michelle: I know exactly what you mean by “explode” with feelings of love. I’ve always described it as my heart getting bigger. I wonder if anyone knows the physical basis for that feeling, because it seems to be a common reaction to what I am guessing is a surge of OT (oxytocin). Sirius Scientist, any thoughts?

    To Alexandra: I too have had that feeling of “I really love Dog A. . . but not like I LOVE Dog B. Your comment made me wonder about the experiment. Is it possible that there was a causal relationship between the amount of time a dog looked at his/her owner and the owner’s satisfaction? Remember that there was a positive correlation between the amount of time a dog gazed at the owner in the experiment, and the owner’s satisfaction with the dog, as measured before the experiment started. The dogs of people who were less satisfied looked at their owners less in the experiment than the ones in the other group. Could it be that some dogs just inherently are more affiliative (surely that is true) and that one way to express that is by looking at their human often, and that people are more satisfied with dogs who initiate that kind of visual contact?

    To Amy: And did your husband go give you some ‘lubbing’ too? :-)

    To Jennifer: Your description of your belching cutie (Dobbie? I can’t remember, so sorry) got me laughing out loud the first time I read it, and every time I read your comment it makes me smile. Thanks for the lift! And oh yes, so often my dogs ‘gaze’ is surely best interpreted as “YO! YOU! Where’s the treat/toy/walk/game/belly rub… ? etc etc etc. Does anyone else teach their dogs “That’s Enough” as in PLEASE STOP STARING AT ME AND GO DO SOMETHING ELSE?” Okay, I have Border Collies. . . but Tulip used to do it too!

    To Mateus: I love the reminder about cows and buffalos and their release of OT. I love being bound by biology to other animals!

    To Kate: Excellent question. It seems reasonable that fear and anger would decrease or overwhelm the production of OT, and that a lack of them would facilitate a higher level of it. Here’s a chicken or the egg question: are people with inherently more OT (are there people w/ inherently higher levels? I’m not sure we know if there are… I was just speculating.) more likely to use primarily positive methods, or do positive methods increase OT? Or both? (which might be just as likely, if not more so!) Physiologists?

    To Susannah: Love the images of big dudes and little Poms. My farm helper guy who chain saws the really big trees that fall on the fence, digs post holes, etc, is a beefy, mid-western-corn-fed kind-of guy. You get the idea: muscles, size, testosterone, all that stuff. And yet he puddles, just liquefies, when he talks about his tiny
    Rat Terrier. He brings him over sometimes, and there’s this big guy baby talking baby talk to this tiny dog . . . makes me smile and go all goo-ey myself. (And don’t get me started on what it is like to watch my Jim play with his two year old grand daughter. Oh my my my.)

    To Jenny: What a wonderful photograph! (And I love the toes, never would have noticed if you hadn’t pointed them out.) Hope your toes and all rest of your body is healed or healing!

    To Liz F: How good you are to share the post with friends, they are lucky to have you. Here’s hoping it helps. I just heard a good friend talk about being with older relations who just got a new dog, a wonderful dog by all accounts. Except the couple had no idea how to train or communicate, and ended up yelling & leash jerking this poor dog who had no idea what they wanted. I actually asked my friend to spare me any more details… it was too painful to hear about, and there is nothing I can do about it. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? It hurts so much to watch animals be abused simply because someone expects them to read their minds and gets mad when they don’t. . .

    To Deb: Thanks for joining the conversation! So glad you found us (and thanks Susannah!)

    And finally, to Sirius Sci: What a fascinating comment. I love the questions it raises. I guess the question I want to ask as much “Are there some people more predisposed to bond w/ indiv’s of other species?” (because it seems like there are, as your example tells us) but “Why are some people more predisposed to bond….” And oh yes, I have met so many dogs who love everyone (Here’s my version of Willie’s brain, upon meeting a stranger: “OH OH OH OH. There’s ANOTHER ONE! Another HUMAN! OH MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE I FOUND ANOTHER ONE!!!!) versus many dogs I’ve worked with who were, like yours, one person dogs or even a few who seem aloof to almost everyone. I’d love to know more about the physiological basis of personality….(and love hearing even a snippet about your own work!)

    Okay, what an indulgence for me to say something in response to every comment. Wish I could do it all day long, but uh, guess I’d better get back to work. (I’ve finished the first draft of the revised puppy book this morning, but now it’s time to work on the chapter on Assistance Dogs….) Thanks for the conversation!

  16. Jessie says

    I’d certainly believe that a portion of dog owners have oxytocin surges when their dogs look at them. Just having my own dog(or almost any dog, really) nearby calms me and raises my mood.

    It’s even been a training issue from time to time, as I am struggling not to laugh at ‘clever’ misbehavior sometimes. I am so pleased that the dog figured out something I thought he couldn’t, even though it was terribly naughty, that I have to leave the room in order not to reward the behavior with laughter and obvious appreciation of his facile mind! Sometimes I am laughing at their ingenuity, sometimes at my own stupid underestimation of their abilities, but laughing all the same. I know and I try not to reward misbehavior, but sometimes you are laughing so hard on the inside (at yourself or the dog) that you have to remove yourself for a second or two. I can’t be the only one here.

  17. Trisha says

    To Jessie, between laughs: Oh you are SO not the only one who struggles. But you are clearly a better person than I. At least half the time I just give up and laugh out loud, even though I know I shouldn’t!

  18. Jessie says

    Ha! Trisha, you make me feel much better! Trust me, I think the dog knows that when I go into the next room and laugh out loud or silently laugh he or she has something to do with my reaction. How couldn’t they? I look at their handiwork and lose it, so I think they are in on the game and I am fooling myself that I’ve somehow saved the training moment. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s just so HARD when you realize your own folly or the dog’s intelligence to stay all serious and ‘do the right thing’! And I really think I mainly am fooling myself when I step away, not the dog. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  19. says

    I wonder what whether the dogs’ oxytocin levels are correlated with eye contact. I’ve always thought that making eye contact with a human was not natural for a dog because it’s bad manners among dogs. However, after years of positive reinforcement for eye contact, my dogs initiate eye contact with me many times per day. I love it – it feels like they are peering into my soul. But, I’ve always wondered if *the dogs* truly love doing it. It would be very interesting to look at their hormones in a parallel study.

    Now I understand why my favorite photos of my dogs are the ones that I captured as they gazed into my eyes!

  20. Amy says

    I would be interested to know what the dogs’ oxytocin levels were – did the dogs with highly satisfied owners also have higher levels of oxytocin after the interaction with their owner? It would seem to me that it would be a reciprocal relationship.

    And did the dogs with dissatisfied owners show any signs of increased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity after the session with their owner?

  21. Alexandra says

    Jessie – I usually laugh whenever my dogs figure out something naughty or not the behavior I wanted. My older dog, Izzy, is particularly good at that. One of my favorites was when she was a puppy, I told her to take her feet off the window sill. Wanting to reinforce her for listening to me, I gave her a treat. She immediately ran back to the window sill, put her front legs on it, and then looked back at me over her shoulder as if to say, “Ok, now tell me to get off so I can get a treat again! What fun!” I HAD to laugh at that. I think she’s actually a very clever dog!

    Trisha – Oh my, thank you for all the replies today! I know you are busy and there a bunch of us. I have taught both of my dogs to “go lie down” on their beds on command expressly to get them to stop staring at me and go entertain themselves. It will only work for so long, though. Izzy’s thought process on seeing a person is probably something along the lines of “Is it looking at me? I think it’s looking at me. Ack!” (sigh.) whereas Copper tends to come across as thinking, “Omigod! A human! HI! MY NAME IS COPPER! I’M TWO! HI! HI! HI! *wiggle, wiggle, wiggle*”

    I, too, would find it interesting to know what is going on with the dogs chemically when their humans get an oxytocin boost.

  22. says

    [IMG]http://i86.photobucket.com/albums/k85/RooTeddyAnna/MeAndMyBestBoy.jpg[/IMG] This is my very favorite picture of my pit bull mix, TeddyBear, and I EVER. This was actually an “accidental picture” taken after the two of us had posed for some. THIS is what oxytocin is all about. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Not surprisingly, this boy is my heart dog. <3

  23. says

    Okay, I seem to be able to get a gooey riff on other people’s “connection” pictures, too — which is very cool, that ability to feel good because someone else has got the spark going on.

    In casual meetings, Puzzle doesn’t love a lot of eye gaze from strangers (she has to get a baseline scent on them in greeting, first, and then it’s cool). But she is very much about the eye contact with me. It’s part of our work, part of our play, and part of our affection.

    Since folks are sharing ‘eye gaze’ photos, I’ll share mine. This was taken about two months ago during a shoot for the book: Puzzle with me in the training field, happy after a series of finds and ready for the word to Find More. I look at my girl shining up at me, and there’s the rush. I hope she feels it, too.


  24. Jo says

    Just curious if any of you have read “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond by Meg Daley Olmert” and if so, what you thought of it? I have only read a review about it in a dog magazine but that review talked about oxytocin and it’s effect on a dog’s behavior. Is it a worthwhile read? In my journey with one of my dogs and his behavior issues, I am trying to learn all I can about ways to understand and help him. Bless you Dr. McConnell for “For The Love of a Dog” and for the blog. I’ve been lurking for a while and love it!

  25. ABandMM says

    I have been volunteering at a local animal shelter these past few months, and I have been happier than I have been in quite a few years. It just maybe due to the multiple “oxytocin hits” I get from walking and training the dogs at the shelter. Hounds (hound mixes) are my thing, something about their eyes, the ears… that sends me into the “gooey zone”. I had been hesitant to volunteer in a shelter. Besides a hectic work schedule, the potential emotional issues of not being able to bring the dogs home with me, and guilt for leaving them in the pound, was something that scared me. I am volunteering at a no-kill shelter, so when I don’t see a dog there, I know it is because it has found a home.

    Sirius Scientist brought up a lot of interesting questions (the predisposition of being a “dog person”, hmmm, it would explain some things) and it would be interesting to see the changes in hormone levels (oxytocin, and others, including those involved in stress) in both the humans and the dogs at varying points before, during and after the interactions. There are a lot of variables to studies like this, unfortunately, very hard to explore all of them and have the proper control groups.

    My condolences to DKM and the loss of your dog (that is my greatest fear, my dog getting loose). Hopefully the memories you have will offer you some solace during this time of sorrow.

  26. MJ says

    My dog rarely looks at me … an ongoing issue that has made “watch me” pretty much of a bust. However, the oxyto flows when I get an ape-like, chest to chest hug, with paws around my neck and nose buried in my collar bone. It is that “feeling” that I hold when I’m at the doctor’s getting a blood pressure check. It’s gone down!

  27. Pike says

    What a fascinating discussion!

    Being more of the stand off-ish kind myself and having a hound mix – Ronja – who often misbehaves and hardly ever gazes adoringly at me, my first reaction was one of defensiveness. Does the study imply that I somehow created Ronja’s aloofness by being my northern German coolish self rather than a warmer mother hen type? Or that I don’t love her enough? Or that our bond is flawed?

    Then I had to laugh and was wondering about my interpretation here. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the actual study online – just many references to it. For example, it would be great to know what breeds were involved.

    a) Maybe the more satisfied people happened to be partial to dogs from breeds like Goldens, Labs, Border Collies, etc. who work closely with people and watch them for cues as part of their work – thus more gazing/eye contact as well.

    b) Maybe the more dissatisfied people happened to be partial to more independent breeds like hounds, sled dogs etc. whose work does not involve much gazing/eye contact – and who are more willing to please themselves than their owners.

    c) Like Sirius Scientist, I was also wondering if the test set up itself might have contributed to folks feeling more and less oxytocinated. I am very sure that seeing my non-gazing, often misbehaved hound asleep in her soft rocking chair while doing the front paws’ kneading motion followed by a contented sigh upon hearing my voice, would surely have increased my Oxytocin levels.

    Ah, so many interesting possibilities…

    MJ, hound mix Ronja also rarely looks at me – while much better behaved Sparky (Portuguese Waterdog) does gaze often. So, in my mind, gazing AND rapid responsiveness are just breed specific characteristics rather than indicative of the strength of the human canine bond.

    DKM, so sorry about your loss. Many comforting thoughts…

  28. Mateus Freua says

    Oh Trisha! Thanks for the replies. We know how you have a lot of things to do: you are a scientist, and you care of a farm, and I really know how tiring this is!
    I have to say I never read an article about that, but reading the Sirius comments: maybe the OT is one of the hormones that are related with the good parental care. An animal that has a high threshold of OT when see their offspring probably will be good parent (good mothers): an important characteristic in wildlife and an interesting characteristic in animal production.
    Is like you said in the post Trisha and how we read in

  29. Kerry L. says

    The first oxytocin-induced ‘falling in love’with my dog moment took me completely by surprise, when Alice (my first dog) was staring at me, wagging her entire body, waiting for a treat. It was such a rush I almost fell over. I thought there must be something wrong with me to feel so strongly about a dog so I was relieved when I read about it in your book. Another study on hormones indicates that oxytocin is released in human females during orgasm. I work in the field of domestic violence and this helps explain what causes women in violent relationships to have such difficulty leaving their abusive partners – even if they are no longer with the partner, the hormone-induced bond is not easily broken.

  30. LynnSusan says

    Oh, I can’t get enough of this !

    And I have to share my “Heart-dog” moment.
    Gracie and I both needed rescuing. I was trying to regain a sense of power after a home invasion (fortunately I was not physically harmed) and she had spent seven of her ten months in a crate, being punished because one of her ears did not stand up. How we found each other is another, magical story, but the day we met, no, the instant we met–each of us knew we were home.
    I got out of the car and this magnificent dog had her gaze fixed on me. Her tail was low, and wagging tentatively. The others there said it looked as if a light had switched on in both of us. The connection was visible. She gazed into my eyes, with that silly Shepherd grin on her face,and made a beeline to me. On the way home in the car, she rested her big head on my lap, and every time I glanced down, she was looking at me—and her tail would beat a slow “thump-thump.” I was so overcome by emotion–and am to this day. I can’t write this without my eyes welling, and my heart swelling.

    It will be 2 years that Gracie came into my life that Thanksgiving weekend. And I still get “goo-ey”, every time she looks at me that way, and her tail beats out the rhythm of my heart.

  31. Trisha says

    LynnSusan: “.. and her tail beats out the rhythm of my heart.” Oh oh oh. What a beautiful line, and what a beautiful story. Picture me: eyes welling, heart swelling. Gotta go, late to something but oh oh oh, what a lovely, lovely testament to relationships. Thank you so much for writing, I’ll carry your comment, and everyone else’s oxytocin soaked words with me all night long. Thump thump thump.

  32. Laura says

    My “heart dog” is Marley, best friend to LynnSusan’s Gracie. I’m proud to say I was part of the team that brought LynnSusan and Gracie together – I’ve known Gracie since the moment she was born. Gracie’s birth and survival was a miracle, so we called her Amazing Grace.

    I know the feeling of having a dog that makes your heart swell. Marley, a Giant Alaskan Malamute, is everything I’ve ever wanted in a best friend. She’s affectionate, smart, loyal, and funny. Her gold/green eyes look into my soul and I can’t help but wrap my arms around her strong body and feel her warmth soak into me. She is lying with her head in my lap at this very moment. I got her when she was 8 weeks old, and we have been together constantly for the past two years.

    The best part was when Marley and Gracie met. It was doggy love at first sight! That “feel-good” hormone surges every time LynnSusan and I watch our beautiful girls play and interact. Marley, although a few months younger, is the dominant one, and she watches over Gracie with such love and affection. They run and wrestle and play, and when they get tired, they lie down next to each other with the kind of ease only best friends can have. This leaves LynnSusan and I all choked up and speechless at the pureness of such love.

    I’ve loved each and every dog that has come into my life, but a true “heart dog” only comes along once – maybe twice – in a lifetime. My wish is for every dog owner to find theirs.

  33. says

    I LOVE the picture of you and Tulip. My “heart dog” was a Newfy named Annie…I still get tears so easily when I remember her…..big brown eyes of love surrounded by a cloak of black fur. She was mine as much as I was hers….we were one.
    All of my dogs bring on feel good hormones, but I think our Pyr is the closest to being another “heart dog”….he melts me with his eyes. I swear he can reach inside of me and read what’s there! He is love. Our quilt of dogs consists of an 8 year old Irish Wolfhound, a 10 year old rescue Brit (who thanks us every day), the 2 year old Pyr, Cody, who melts me, and a very silly 5 month old rescue Border Collie who has the BEST sense of humor!!! He is fast becoming my husbands “heart dog”.
    I love them all dearly and they most definitely raise my oxytocin levels….to the max!

  34. Kris says

    This is very interesting for me because I have ptsd and associated depression and anxiety issues, and I have DEFINITELY gotten much better since I adopted an older dog from a shelter a bit over a year ago. So I would have to say that he’s very much improving my mental state. (I had a similar but lesser improvement when I had pet rats – but they generally interact personally less than dogs do.)

    Seems like good information to add to the argument for using dogs for therapy purposes, too. Not just on a visiting basis, but as assistance dogs for people with issues like depression and anxiety and so on. It will be interesting to see what they find in the future.

  35. says

    I thought that there was a similar study done in Germany which concluded that oxytocin levels were similar with dog owners compared to human mothers with their infants.

  36. Amalia Lucero says


    I just wanted to say that I totally agree with you on this, and that the picture of you and your dog almost made me cry; it is so beautiful. The connection between you and your baby is obvious. I can totally relate to that. I have an also gorgeous Yellow Labrador; he is the love of my life. Thank you for sharing this with us :0)


  37. Jean Edwards says

    I know exactly how you feel. I have 6 dogs and I love them so much, but there is my little girl, Misha and even watching her eat, drink, run just makes my heart explode with love. (lame I know *J*) She is the one who looks at me so deeply I swear she can see my soul.

    I love the picture of you and Tulip, what a bond you shared. Sorry for your loss.

  38. Deirdre says

    From 1988 until 2007, I was extremely fortunate to have two consecutive “heart dogs”, one of whom (Davey, ’88-2000) was also my “forever dog” and is the measure I will always use when evaluating puppies and dogs (and some people).

    I’ve found I can’t last more than a few months without a dog. Today, I have two rescue dogs, adopted on the same day in 2007 because they both gave me good gaze and closed a switch, somewhere between my heart and brain, that caused me to know we could bond. I love my husband dearly, but honestly the first thing I want to see when I get home in the evening is my girls’ faces! They each get their faces cradled for a lookie, a breath exchange and then a forehead touch as soon as I’ve put down my things. After that, the stress of the workday begins to recede and I know I’m safe and loved and can focus on home/family matters. Life is pretty good with dogs in it!

    Good article! Sorry I missed it until today.

  39. Tonya White says

    Could oxytocin hormones be the fountain of youth elixir? I am 46 I have been told by many that I don’t look a day over 32. I have a 17 year old reindeer Chihuahua and according to his vet and many dog lovers across the bay area in Northern California he does not look a day over 8. I have affectionately kissed and hug him at least a dozen times a day for the past 7 years as a result it seems that we are both aging in the reverse. I would love to hear what others have to say on the matter.

  40. Heidi says

    This article is really helpful, thanks! I have an 11 week old Siberian Husky and she stares at me until she falls asleep..makes me go “awwww.” I didn’t know what it meant and I googled what it meant when a pup keeps starting at you, and I came across this site. so thanks! :)

  41. Phyllis says

    The study that also compared wolves’ oxytocin with that of dogs did not appear to establish the type of bond that the owners had with the wolves. In the experiment, the wolves did not gaze into the owners’ eyes at all. This is a fascinating area to follow up. Were any of the wolves bonded to their owners as measured by the same questions asked of the dog owners? Do wolves respond to their young with surges of oxytocin?
    On another note, I help train shelter dogs. The first activity we use is the “eye” game. It is clearly a bonding activity. I never understood why it would be, before coming across the oxytocin studies. Just knew I liked it! Love your work, Trishia.

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