Can we do better with our dog interactions?

The latest study to be funded under the Human-Animal Bond grant seeks to understand what constitutes a positive experience for the dogs when it comes to dog-handler interactions by measuring their oxytocin levels during various interactions. Hopefully this will help educate anyone interacting with dogs, including owners, on how we can do better and reduce the incidence of behavioural disorders.

Oxytocin is a hormone that is released within the brain of many social animals. It has the ability to regulate social behaviours, such as pair bonding, peer recognition and social memory, as well as promote social bonds between humans and animals.


Oxytocin levels can enhance the social motivation to approach and affiliate with familiar humans. Long lasting formation and maintenance of social bonds are built on the basis of this oxytocin-induced affiliation. Dogs have undergone prolonged cohabitation with humans, so the opportunity to establish close bonds and attachments to humans therefore regulates their behavioural and emotional responses. Oxytocin-associated responses are also modified by environmental and social factors however, so handling interactions are a crucial deciding mechanism in oxytocin levels released in dogs.


Heightened oxytocin levels in dogs also have the potential to combat the high number of dogs that display behavioural disorders due to stress exposure. Oxytocin has the ability to reduce stress through the multiple physiological responses it induces such as reduced heart rate, and suppression of the physiological stress pathway. This reduction in stress has the potential to provide a way to decrease the number of dogs in rehoming situations as behavioural disorders play a large role in surrending of dogs to shelters.


Dog-handler interactions are only able to form strong, long-lasting socio-positive behaviours if they are based on positive handling interactions. It is therefore, of high importance to determine what constitutes a positive handling interaction and gain the understanding of how significant the related oxytocin release is within the handled dog as it undergoes various handling interactions.


Once this understanding has been gained it will help toy to educate dog owners and handlers as to what sort of positive interactions they can have with their dogs to improve dog welfare and reduce the chances of behavioural disorders developing. 


The study will be undertaken at a popular doggy-daycare facility with routine interactions between the daycare team and both regular visiting dogs and newcomers. Samples will be collected via saliva swabs from the mouth of each dog participating four times during the day with specific interactions. Both oxytocin and cortisol (a stress hormone) will be measured along with behaviour observations of human interactions as well as inter-dog interactions in the play pens via video recording. 


Utilising an environment such as doggy day care will allow this to be a baseline study for dogs in highly social and busy environments, providing a pathway towards future studies for dogs in pound or rescue situations. The next steps for this project would be take its findings and apply them in a rehabilitative manner for dogs that have shown to be behaviourally high risk. This would extend to producing a behavioural program that can induce oxytocin-driven behaviours to combat the stress high risk dogs may be prone to.