We all know you’re not supposed to have favorite family members—everyone should be of equal standing on the totem pole. But there’s also an exception to every rule, and this case is no different. Because the truth is, not a single one of us can deny the abundance of love that lies with these special (furry) members: our dogs! Not only are they undeniably adorable, but they never fail to greet us with excitement and a smile; they’re pros at making us laugh and feel loved; and they dedicate their lives to loving us unconditionally—whether we’re happy, sad, angry, lazy, or a flat-out mess… although they just might prefer us at our happiest. (And who can blame ‘em?)

A new study “Nasal Oxytocin Treatment Biases Dogs’ Visual Attention and Emotional Response toward Positive Human Facial Expressions” from the University of Helsinki shows that dogs are most interested in smiling human faces—thanks to the “love hormone” oxytocin, which is released during dog-human interactions and plays a major role in affection and trust. Additionally, they discovered that oxytocin also makes dogs perceive angry faces as less threatening.

With the goal of exploring how oxytocin affects emotional perception in dogs, researchers from the Canine Mind research project studied gazing behavior and pupil diameters in 43 different dogs under two different conditions: after undergoing an oxytocin spray treatment or enduring a saline (placebo) spray treatment. These dogs were then shown pictures of happy and angry human faces.

After administering these tests, the team found that the dogs’ gaze patterns were affected by oxytocin treatment—though selectively. More specifically, the dogs focused more so on smiling or happy faces and less so on angry ones after receiving the oxytocin treatment. Furthermore, analysis of their pupil sizes revealed that the dogs’ pupil sizes were larger when viewing happy faces under the oxytocin treatment, while the opposite was true for the saline treatment.

“Overall, these findings suggest that nasal oxytocin administration selectively changes the allocation of attention and emotional arousal in domestic dogs,” the researchers explain in their paper, which is published in Frontiers in Psychology. “Oxytocin has the potential to decrease vigilance toward threatening social stimuli and increase the salience of positive social stimuli, thus making eye gaze of friendly human faces more salient for dogs.” They go on to say that oxytocin likely controls emotional processing in dogs, and therefore, much of our interactions with them.

So, while our dogs prove time and time again to stick by our side through the tough times and our emotional roller coasters, this study shows that they’re most interested in our friendly and pleasant moods due to oxytocin that is released during our interactions with them. Dogs love to see their best friends smile and prefer that their humans are happy all the time!

Somppi S., Tornqvist H., Topal J., Koskela A., Hanninen L., Krause C. M., & Vainio O. (2017, October 17). Nasal Oxytocin Treatment Biases Dogs’ Visual Attention and Emotional Response toward Positive Human Facial Expressions. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved November 11, 2017 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01854/full

University of Helsinki (2017, November 25). Smiling Human Faces Are Attractive to Dogs, Thanks to Oxytocin. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 25, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/oxytocin-dog-smiling-8029/

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