Is Dog Man’s Best Friend Because of Oxytocin?

A new study shows that oxytocin plays a similar role in dogs’ emotions as it does in humans.

According to the scientists involved in the University of Helsinki's Canine Mind project, a dog’s eyes are the window to his or her souls just as much as a human’s are. Especially dog’s pupils, whose size is affected by their emotional state and their level of attentiveness. "We were among the first researchers in the world to use pupil measurements in the evaluation of dogs' emotional states,” says the head of the group, Outi Vainio, “This method had previously only been used on humans and apes.” The Canine Mind team decided to see if the neuropeptide oxytocin, the “love hormone,” had the same effect on dogs’ emotions as it does in other mammals, and has just released their findings in Frontiers of Psychology.


(WILEE COLE PHOTOGRAPHY via SHUTTERSTOCK)

Researchers discovered oxytocin in humans as they were trying to understand why, as the American Psychological Association puts it, “breastfeeding women are calmer in the face of exercise and psychosocial stress than bottle-feeding mothers.” Since then, oxytocin has come to be associated with feelings of empathy, bonding, and trust-building, and it’s present during breastfeeding and sexual activity. In childbirth, it causes contractions that widen the cervix and vagina for labor and delivery. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and distributed via the pituitary to the bloodstream or elsewhere in the brain and spinal cord.

Recently, scientists have come to the conclusion that oxytocin’s not so one-sided, since it can also be present during stress, while feeling of isolated, and when experiencing difficulty with another.

Both of these aspects in dogs are reflected in the Canine Mind study.

The researchers used eye-tracking devices to study the dogs’ gazes and pupil size as they were shown pictures of unfamiliar smiling and angry male faces on a computer display. The dogs were allowed to look where they wanted, and this was interpreted — reasonably enough — as an indicator of their attentiveness to the pictures. And pupil size is known to indicate emotional intensity: The larger the pupil, the more powerful the feeling.

A canine eye-tracking system (VISAGE TECHNLOGIES)

There were 43 dogs involved in the experiment, each of whom was tested twice: once after receiving a placebo saline nasal spray treatment, and once after being administered oxytocin via nasal spray. The dogs’ responses to the pictures were, as it turns out, quite different in the absence of presence of the oxytocin.

First off, dogs seem to get the whole “eyes are the windows” bit, too, since without oxytocin, their attention was riveted on the eyes of the angry faces and not so much on eyes on the happy ones, as if their primary concern was watching for trouble. Conversely, on oxytocin, this was flipped: The dogs were no longer on high-alert, losing interest in the eyes of angry faces and actively enjoying the eyes of the happy faces.

(4 PM PRODUCTION via SHUTTERSTOCK)

In terms of emotional intensity, the story was much the same. When the dogs hadn’t received the placebo, their strongest reactions — that is, their largest pupil sizes — occurred when they viewed angry faces, probably out of concern. With oxytocin, it was just the opposite: Smiling faces got the most pronounced response from the apparently chill dogs.

It’s not that surprising that the “love hormone” would play a role in the personalities of dogs, who are understood to be emotional, usually highly affectionate, animals. It helps humans bond with and react to each other, after all. Why not dogs and humans?

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

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  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
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