A Dog’s Devotion—Is it All in the Hormones?

Now, some people will assure you that there is no such thing as canine devotion—that the only thing a dog is devoted to is a full belly.
Most of those people probably never had a dog, have never experienced the intense bonding that can go on between a dog and its owner. For instance, they undoubtedly never heard of Hachiko.

The Faithful Akita

Hachiko was a Japanese Akita. His owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, was a professor who taught at the University of Tokyo. He lived on the outskirts of the city, and commuted to and from work on the train. Hachiko always went to the station with him in the morning, and then went back each afternoon to meet him and walk home with him.

hachiko real

One afternoon, the professor didn’t come home; he had died of a stroke at the university. Hachiko waited for a long time, and then finally walked home alone. The next day, he returned to the station and waited again. He did that every day for eight years, until his own death.


Rover to the Rescue


Or how about Jason Breiding, who owned a dog of no special breed, just your standard mutt? One day, Breiding’s house caught fire. He and his family members dashed outside to escape the flames, but when Breiding counted noses, his infant son was missing.


Naturally panicked, Breiding started to rush back inside, but before he got to the door, out trotted his dog, pulling the baby along by the diaper.

Zoey Zooms to the Rescue


Then there is the experience of Booker West, a twelve-month-old little boy who liked to splash around in the family birdbath. One day a rattlesnake decided it wanted exclusive birdbath rights, and started slithering toward Booker, at which point the family dog, a not exactly massive Chihuahua named Zoey, charged the snake and drove it off. Zoey got bit, but survived to enjoy a place of honor in the family.

No one who knows dogs is surprised by stories like these. Dogs bond closely with their human families, and the bonding is mutual.

The Eyes Have It

Now some research indicates that this bonding occurs on an instinctive, hormonal level.
Human beings have an organ in the lower part of the brain called the pituitary gland. Dogs have this gland also. The pituitary gland produces a hormone called oxytocin, and oxytocin is associated with feelings of desire and emotional attachment. When your levels of oxytocin are high, you get that lovin’ feeling. One of the things that triggers the release of oxytocin, it turns out, is eye contact. When two lovers, or a parent and child, have intense eye contact, the levels of oxytocin increase at both ends. The longer the eye contact goes on, the higher the level of oxytocin.

Some recent studies in Japan have shown that the same thing happens with dogs and their owners. When the mutt and his master, or mistress, gaze into each other’s eyes, the levels of oxytocin go up on both sides; and the longer the eye contact lasts, the higher the hormone levels are.

An interesting sidebar: When the same experiment was carried out with wolves that had lived from puppyhood with humans, eye contact had no effect on the level of oxytocin in the wolves. This kind of hormonal bonding between people and dogs apparently is something that has evolved over centuries of living together.
At any rate, rest assured that when your pup gives you a loving look, it isn’t just asking for a bowl of puppy chow.