Have you ever found yourself gazing into your beloved dog's eyes, feeling a connection that only you understand at that very moment in time? For a brief second, nothing else in the world matters, and you and your dog have a bond that nothing could break. Then you smile at them, and all is right in the world. You might even feel like he is smiling back at you.
Now, research not only validates the human-animal bond, but it has also brought to light a new idea. Recent studies have shown that our dogs respond to our facial expressions, mostly smiles. Oxytocin can influence how mammals feel about one another, and it is strengthening our relationships with our dogs even more.
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. In other words, it is a molecule used by neurons to communicate with each other. Oxytocin plays a critical role in recognition, trust, emotion regulation, and the regulation of social behavior in mammals.
When we hug or kiss a loved one—even our dog—oxytocin levels increase, giving us a good feeling. This is why oxytocin is often called "the love hormone." Oxytocin is also the hormone that underlies trust, which is a large part of the human-animal bond. When you gaze into your dog's eyes, his oxytocin levels increase up to 130 percent, while yours can increase up to 300 percent. This feeling of elation, trust, and love is an emotional response to the oxytocin level increase in his system, and can deepen your bond with one another.
A new study looked at how oxytocin influences a dog’s response to facial expressions. When a group of dogs were administered oxytocin, they responded better to a smiling person's face than that of an angry one. The dogs fixated less on the angry faces, consistently glancing time and time again at the smiling, happy faces. They were drawn to them. Because of the feeling of love and trust they obtained from the oxytocin, they generally revisited the smiling faces more than the angry ones.
The study also evaluated the eye movements of the dogs. An eye tracking system was used to monitor pupil activity when looking at the negative or positive expressions on the face. When an animal is frightened, uncomfortable, or on guard, his or her pupils dilate or widen. When the dogs looked at the angry faces, their pupils dilated. The dogs given oxytocin in testing, and looking at the smiling faces, did not have this reaction, as oxytocin has the potential to decrease the feeling of threatening stimuli. So I guess you can say, they loved to see their person smile!
Dogs are intelligent animals, and if you have one, you know that they are incredibly emotional, too. Now we can smile at them, and give them an even greater sense of love, trust, and acceptance. We can further connect deeply with them through our feelings and expressions. This may assist in improving your dog's behavior and even keep him happier and more engaged in your family. So the next time you find yourself gazing into your pooch's eyes, give him a smile. It will make you both feel even better.
Natasha Feduik is a licensed veterinary technician with Garden City Park Animal Hospital in New York, where she has been practicing for 10 years. Natasha received her degree in veterinary technology from Purdue University. Natasha has two dogs, a cat, and three birds at home and is passionate about helping people take the best possible care of their animal companions.