It's not just puppy love
They gaze up at you with their big doleful eyes and your heart melts, repeatedly. You are not unique in adoring your fluffy canine friend and this isn’t just puppy love, far from it, dogs really are man’s best friend. Frederik II, King of Prussia, is first recognised as having uttered the comment in relation to one of his Italian greyhounds, although Ogden Nash, the New York born poet is credited with originally coining the phrase .
Admittedly few humans can resist the perfect proportions of a puppy. Their gorgeous heart shaped faces, chubby bodies, little tails, eager leaps, boundless energy, high pitched squeals and effusing affection – but most of us ‘dogaholics’ are in it for the long haul. The majority of dog owners will acknowledge that before long you are merrily pandering to their every lifelong need and desire. You look up and realise they are sapping up so much of your time, attention and money (they might even have taken over your bed, or caused your partner to be a tad jealous or feel neglected)…but you love them unconditionally, they’re worth it and utterly irreplaceable. Yet have you ever stopped to contemplate why your four legged buddy has such a powerful bond with you and truly rules your world?
The truth is it’s far more scientific than you might expect, there really is chemistry at work. When we gaze into our dog’s eyes and vice versa, oxytocin is released. The same powerful hormone which is also responsible for creating the unique rapport between mothers and their newborn babies . "Certainly, people who suggest their dog is part of the family are probably quite right," said Dr. Greg Nelson, Director of Surgery & Diagnostic Imaging at Central Veterinary Associates in Valley Stream, N.Y. "A dog is not merely a housed animal that accepts food from us and tries to cohabitate. Rather, they have a relationship more as a parent and child or peer to peer."
The healing power of animals has long been documented. The medical benefit of pets dates back more than 150 years according to Aubrey Fine, a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at California State Polytechnic University who has written books on the matter . In the 1980s one of the first studies was published which noted that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Whilst another early study confirmed that stroking a dog could also reduce blood pressure .
More recent studies have concentrated on the role of oxytocin. Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads up the Research Centre for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine said "Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body's ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier."
In a recent study Japanese veterinary medical researchers from the Companion Animal Research Lab at Azabu University explored the biological reasons behind our unique relationship with canines. The team refer to dogs evolving to develop ‘human-unique social cognitive modes’ in the Journal Science. Coauthor Takefumi Kikusui told Live Science "We humans use eye gaze for affiliative communications, and are very much sensitive to eye contact." He and his team set out to prove that both gaze and oxytocin could be playing a pivotal role in enabling dogs to identify individual humans and develop relationships with them. Sure enough, the more intensely humans and canines gazed into each other’s eyes the greater the surge in oxytocin release. The team concluded that it explains the evolution of man’s relationship with the domestic dog, with oxytocin reinforcing positive social cues and inducing trust and closeness, although interestingly their wolf cousins do not display the same results previous trials have revealed.
It’s no longer such a mystery, there really is canine magic at work.