Simanaitis Says

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“LOOK INTO my eyes, Lassie.” Or maybe it’s Lassie communicating this wish to her human pal.

Between humans, a prolonged gaze into each other’s eyes promotes an emotional bond. There’s even a chemical aspect, a mediation, with both gazers experiencing enhanced levels of the hormone oxytocin. Amazingly enough, recent work by Japanese researchers identified this same gazing/oxytocin link between humans and canine friends.


Gazing promotes bonding. Image by Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Creative, from an overview of the research, “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway,”by Evan L. MacLean and Brian Hare, Science magazine, April 17, 2015.

The research arose from studies of the coevolution of humans and their canine companions. It’s generally agreed that today’s domesticated dog descended from the grey wolf. (Dogs and wolves share 99.9 percent of their DNA.) However, how this domestication occurred is the subject of much conjecture, not to say outright controversy.

A hundred years ago, it was hypothesized that the human/canine bond grew from early humans raising wolf pups as pets. Today’s view differs: Though an early human may have tried raising a cute little pup, the result would have likely been a wild adult wolf. Instead, most experts today believe that dogs domesticated themselves.


A grey wolf. Image by Marc Moritsch/National Geographic Creative/Corbis from “How the wolf became the dog,” by David Grimm, Science, April 17, 2015.

Here’s the scenario: Early humans left plenty of scraps around. Wolves daring to exploit this food supply would survive longer and produce more pups than their less adventurous siblings. After generations of this, the animal would be eating out of the human’s hand.

Then came a second stage of domestication. Humans bred early canines to be better hunters, herders, workers and friends. Bone structures of early dogs, for instance, show signs of their carrying goods and being harnessed to pull things. Dogs are found in archeological grave sites, buried as departed members of the family.

Miho Nagasawa studies animal science and biotechnology at Azubu University, Sagamihara, Kanagawa, Japan. He and his colleagues are the authors of Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds appearing in the April 17, 2015, issue of Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Nagasawa and his colleagues found that when dogs and humans gaze into each others’ eyes, both experience a rise in the hormone oxytocin, a phenomenon shared with human/human relationships. What’s more, if a dog sniffs oxytocin, its propensity to gaze at its human is increased—and the human responds with an autonomous oxytocin boost too.

Also, their research separated dogs from wolves in this regard. Whereas oxytocin-sniffing dogs showed this increased proclivity to gaze, wolf pets, which rarely engage in eye contact with human handlers, seemed resistant despite the oxytocin sniffing.

Oxytocin can be identified in urine of both humans and canines, a methodology used by the researchers. In the first phase of the study, urine samples of human/canine pairs were taken both before and after 30-minute sessions of pet interaction. The canines included both male and female dogs as well as human-raised wolves.

The researchers assessed degrees of interaction, including canine gaze as well as human talking and petting. With dogs, more profound levels of gazing correlated with subsequently higher levels of urinary oxytocin. With the wolf subjects, talking and petting showed some oxytocin correlation, but whatever gazing existed did not.

In a second phase of their study, researchers sought to confirm a feedback hypothesis: Would giving a dog oxytocin enhance its gazing, and what subsequent effect would this have on its human? This time around, canines were offered “blind-sniffs” of either an oxytocin solution or a saline placebo. Then they interacted with companions as well as strangers, but with no touching nor unnecessary talking on the humans’ part.

In this second phase, oxytocin-sniffing dogs increased their gazing, and their companions responded. What’s more, female dogs displayed the more pronounced effect, and their companions experienced higher oxytocin levels too.

Thus the not-disrespectful title of this item. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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