While walking through Santiago, Chile, you are likely to come across at least one of the countless wandering dogs that live on the busy streets. Homeless dogs are a normal part of Santiago’s culture. They are quick to make friends with anyone who offers a welcoming hand or food. They are not quick, however, to forget their friends. If you make a canine companion in this city, as my classmates and I did, it will probably remember you the next time you come down the street.
The feeling of attachment between the dogs and people of Santiago reminded me of the way a mother and her infant gaze into each other’s eyes. This simple, mutual act of love causes an automatic reaction in both the mom and baby, which increases the levels of oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a major role in social bonding between mothers and infants and between romantic partners. The release of oxytocin promotes a feeling of social well-being and may prevent stress. Interacting with the local dogs in Chile made me wonder if this same sense of happiness and bonding occurs between dogs and people.
A research study looking at the bond between humans and dogs found a similar release—and increase—of oxytocin during social interactions, such as gazing, in both the animals and people. The dogs’ hormone levels also increased when people talked to and petted them. Scientists think this looped interaction reaction (bonding in both directions between pooch and person) may be a reason that humans were able to domesticate wild dogs in the first place. Dogs are one of the only animals known to fully recognize human facial features and expressions. This ability likely helps dogs and people communicate, love and take comfort in one another’s presence.
This mutual interaction is likely the cause of a quick, yet memorable, friendship between humans and dogs both at home and in places like the streets of Santiago. So next time you see a dog in passing, don’t be afraid to gaze into its eyes and form a quick friendship.
Logan Goff is an exercise physiology major at the University of Dayton. Anne R. Crecelius, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Health and Sport Science Department at the University of Dayton. They spent four weeks in Chile as part of a study abroad program in partnership with the Universidad de los Andes studying nutrition, sports and research in the context of the Chilean culture. This is the final installment in a three-part series (read part one and part two) that spies physiology in this dynamic South American country.