Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress.
Research has shown that when humans interact with dogs, oxytocin levels increase in both species. “When parents look at their baby and their baby stares into their eyes, even though the baby can’t talk, parents get an oxytocin boost just by eye contact,” Hare says. “Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or (by) playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up. This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation.”
Miho Nagasawa, a postdoctoral fellow at Jichi Medical University in Shimotsuke, Japan, has found that mutual gazing between humans and their dogs increases the owners’ oxytocin levels. This helps decrease anxiety and arousal levels, and slow the heart rate. “The positive interaction between humans and dogs via mutual gazing may reduce stress activity for each other,” she says.
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