Does your dog love obeying your commands? A new Australian study shows that dogs perform better when given the love hormone, oxytocin.
In humans, oxytocin is a hormone that helps mothers and their offspring bond. This chemical in the human brain, it is believed to increase the ability to understand emotions and solve social problems.
Aside from that, there is also growing evidence that oxytocin is involved in the bonding process between humans and dogs.
The study published in the journal Animal Cognition found that dogs performed better at following commands to find hidden treats after they were given oxytocin.
To date, these findings are the best evidence to explain how dogs evolved to become mans’ best friend. They could also pave the way for breeding dogs that respond even better to human cues, says researcher Jessica Oliva, who carried out the study as part of her PhD in biological sciences at Monash University.
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There is proof that patting and talking to a dog for just three minutes, for example, increases oxytocin levels in the blood stream of both human and dog. Studies have also shown that the closer a human feels to a dog, the more oxytocin appears in the human’s urine.
“So that really seemed to suggest that oxytocin is involved in feelings of closeness to your dog,” says Oliva. But checking levels of oxytocin in the blood does not necessarily indicate what’s happening in the brain, she says.
Using nasal spray
Oliva and her colleagues wanted to see the impact of oxytocin on a dogs’ ability to use human cues to pick which of two bowls contained a hidden treat.
In their study, 31 male and 31 female dogs were tested twice after being given oxytocin or a saline placebo, and scored out of ten for their performance.
To ensure that the chemical got into the brain easily, the oxytocin was administered to dogs via a nasal spray.
Results show that the dogs given oxytocin outperformed those not given the hormone.The performance improvement was still evident after 15 days of getting the oxytocin .
“This told us that oxytocin is definitely involved in a dog’s ability to use human cues.”
Relation in dog evolution
According to Oliva, previous research has shown that dogs are better at using non-verbal human cues like pointing to pick up treats than their wolf ancestors. This is the case even with wolves that are highly socialized and hand-reared by humans.
“So my hypothesis is that over the course of domestication, something happened within the dog’s brain that allowed them to understand human social cues,” she said.
She suggests that oxytocin enables the bond between dog and human, and the next step would be to do exactly the same experiment with wolves.
“That would really tell us more about evolution,” she said.
The researcher says some dogs in the experiment were better than others at the task.
“Some were at chance level, some were really good,” she said.
Now, she is looking at whether there is a genetic difference in the oxytocin receptor gene in the better-performing dogs.
Determining whether there is genetic difference in the oxytocin receptor gene could lead to selective breeding of dogs especially guide dogs, military dogs, or customs dogs, says Oliva.