The science behind the unique bond between people and dogs

July 8, 2019

The relationship between humans and dogs is truly one-of-a-kind. How can science help explain these loving bonds?

Your dog puts his head on your knee. You gently rub him behind the ears. Your eyes meet and, for a blissful moment, you experience an intense rush of love.

You're not alone!

A study conducted by Miho Nagasaw, from Azabu University's School of Veterinary Medicine in Japan, found that dogs and their owners experience rates of ocytocin 30% higher than normal when they look deeply into each other's eyes. In contrast, domesticated wolves rarely look at their owners' and their brains don't secrete ocytocin, sometimes known as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone.

Ádám Miklósi, a Hungarian ethologist and one of the founders of the Family Dog Research Project—among the most influential research groups specializing in the relationship between dogs and people—believes that this fact is exceptional. “The relationship between dog and owner has several of the characteristics of friendship,” he says. “Dogs and their masters share daily tasks, communicate and cooperate on different levels, learn from each other, synchronize behaviours and feel shared emotions.”

Shared love
The first study to address the relationship between dogs and their masters took place in 1998 and was led by another Hungarian ethologist, József Topál. It was based on a series of tests developed in the 1970s by the Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth which analyzed how young children's behaviour differed according to the presence of their mother or an unknown person. In Dr Topál's study, dogs reacted in a similar fashion to children. For instance, when their master was in the room dogs would play with a stranger, whereas dogs would not play with that person if their master was not present. Topál concluded that, just like a young child with his or her parents, dogs feel more secure when their master is present. “If the dog feels threatened, it will seek reassurance by moving closer to his owner,” says Ádám Miklósi.

In 2011, ethologist Veronika Konok showed that dogs, in the absence of their owners, tend to gravitate to their owner's favourite chair—a behaviour that was demonstrated by young puppies as well as adult dogs. “It's unique to dogs. And it's often a reciprocal feeling, as people can be equally attached to their dogs. They may even see themselves as their dog's ‘parent',” observes Ádám Miklósi.

The affection between dog and human is akin to maternal love. In 2014, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), discovered that the same areas in the brain were activated when a mother looked at either a photograph of her child or of her dog.

This wasn't the case when the mother looked at a photograph of someone else's child or dog.

Years of collaboration
According to Mylène Quervel-Chaumette, an ethologist who is responsible for canine resources at Zoothérapie Québec, the bond between dogs and their owners is the result of domestication. She cites the research of the Wolf Science Center at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria. The centre has studied the cognitive capacities of dogs and wolves brought up in similar circumstances, by conducting tests, such as opening a box that contains food. “The researchers found that dogs, instead of seeking to solve a puzzle by themselves, would enlist the help of the human in the room,” explains the specialist. In this reflex, Quervel-Chaumette sees the fruit of centuries of co-existence between dogs and people, and proof that collaboration with humans has shaped canine behaviour.

Other studies have shown that dogs can share their owners' anxiety and even display empathy for a sad person (for instance, when they appear to comfort them by nudging them with their nose or licking them). According to Quervel-Chaumette, these types of assertions are frequently contested; it's difficult to determine the true motivation of a dog's behaviour and know if it can be truly defined as empathy. “It's tempting to anthropomorphize,” she warns.

But there's no doubt that dogs do recognize our emotions and react to them more than other animals. “Dogs seek more interaction with people and have developed the ability to ‘decode' us,” she says. “And this most likely explains why we're so attached to dogs.” And why we've grown to consider them as members of the family!


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