Study Finds That Your Dog Might Really Love You Back

Your dog may feel the same love as it looks back at you. Credit: Lauri Rotko / Getty Images

There may be scientific research to explain why looking into your dog's eyes can melt your heart. More impressively, dogs may feel the same way as we stare back. Whether or not dogs truly have those emotions is difficult to prove, but a new study from Azabu University in Japan measured hormone level changes during interactions between pets and their owners. It turns out that of the 30 owners and dogs who were part of the study, the owners whose dogs stared at them the longest — and the dogs whose owners stared at them the longest — had the highest oxytocin levels, which is the hormone most closely associated to love.

The same test was repeated with wolves that were raised by people, with no evidence in a change of hormone levels. This suggests that domesticated dogs developed a way to bond with their owners similarly to how owners bonded with their dogs. "Dogs have taken advantage of our parental sensitivities, using behaviors such as staring into our eyes, to generate feelings of social reward and caretaking behavior," say Evan MacLean, Ph.D., and Brian Harean, Ph.D., in an essay published in Science journal. Both are cognitive scientists at Duke University.

Because oxytocin is also linked to feelings of emotional isolation and aggression in some animals, the response may not necessarily be a true emotion from your pet, and could simply be a situation that your dog is responding to hormonally. "There is a fashion in science at the moment to identify changes in hormone levels with changes in emotional and feeling state," says Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University who studies how dogs and people interact, in a NPR radio segment. "I think the best evidence that any dog lover has that their dog loves them is what the dog does when it's around them."