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Does the Dog You Adopted Have the Selfish Gene?

Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works mostly with dogs and exotic animals.

The puppy in this photo is using its selfish gene on you right now.

The puppy in this photo is using its selfish gene on you right now.

Dogs look at us and cause us to release oxytocin, the "mothering hormone", into our bloodstream so that we will care for them. They know how to manipulate humans. They express their selfish gene and convince us to provide them with food and shelter.

Is your dog expressing her gene pattern even now?

Are you ready to take care of this puppy?

Are you ready to take care of this puppy?

Dogs and Oxytocin Release

An article published in a 2015 issue of Science revealed that when dogs stare at humans, the gaze causes the humans to release oxytocin. This is a hormone that causes mammals to do several things, one of which is to care for their young. (This is the hormone released when mothers nurse their children.)

The oxytocin released into the human urine causes the dogs to release oxytocin too, making them care and stare at the humans even more, which makes us release more oxytocin . . .

And on it goes. A dog looking at me makes me care about him, which sounds like a good way to develop a solid dog-human bond.

Puppy Eyes

A lot of authors have noticed that puppies have large eyes and round faces, similar to human infants, and their looks make us more likely to care about them. In fact, most of you have probably felt this “need to adopt and care” when looking at a cute puppy, but it is not just those puppy eyes that do it! All dogs, whether or not they are bred to have those large eyes, are capable of staring at us and causing oxytocin release.

Okay, now that we know how they manipulate us, how do we know that they are always selfish about doing so?

Dogs depend on more than a baby face.

Dogs depend on more than a baby face.

Selfish Manipulation

In his first book on genetic manipulation, Richard Dawkins describes what the selfish gene is. The selfish gene is a gene that causes the organism (be it a dog, human, or even an insect) to act in such a way that it will be able to survive and spread itself to the next generation.

(The selfish gene is not about being selfish—it is about using manipulation in order to survive. Dogs may express their survival instincts through food aggression or suffer from “resource guarding”, but those things have nothing to do with manipulation.)

Do Dogs Use One of Their Genes in Order to Survive?

When a dog stares at us, and we are manipulated into caring about her and providing her with food and a home, this is the dog's expression of the selfish gene. Dogs have adapted through natural selection in such a way that we are likely to take care of them—the oxytocin released through the gazing is probably the mechanism by which this happens.

The numbers prove that this strategy is working. The dog population around the world is over 500 million, compared to the wolf population of about 200,000. Wolves do not stare at us and do not cause the same oxytocin release in us that dogs do.

Does your dog manipulate you?

Does your dog manipulate you?

Do Dogs Sometimes Ignore Their Selfish Gene?

There have been plenty of cases of dogs acting altruistically, and many people will argue that dogs do not always act in their best interests. In most of these cases of altruistic behavior, however, the dog risked her own life to save the lives of her human family.

This may be an expression of the selfish gene. When a dog rescues her family, how does the family respond? They protect her forever after, of course, and it is not unusual to hear “this is the best dog ever” before a family tells me that what they really want is to get some puppies from this dog.

Altruism may work in other ways. Wolves that act as “babysitters” for the pups belonging to the alpha pair are probably acting the same way. They are taking care of the puppies because they are genetically related.

A selfish gene strikes again.

Was this dog selected for eyes that could not manipulate?

Was this dog selected for eyes that could not manipulate?

  • Why Does My Dog Stare and Look Into My Eyes?
    There are some interesting new findings on why dogs stare at humans but of course there are those who disagree. This article discusses some of the theories about why a dog stares into my eyes.

Is My Dog Selfish?

Some other species have developed genes to interact and manipulate other species. The cuckoo is one of the most famous. The cuckoo bird lays her eggs in the nests built by other species and the “foster moms and dads” raise the cuckoo hatchlings as if they were their own. In fact, some of the foster parents take better care of the cuckoo hatchlings than their own chicks, and they feed the cuckoo more often than their own children.

Eventually, scientists will discover the chemical that young cuckoos use to manipulate their foster parents. Maybe they stimulate the parents to release endorphins and feel better about themselves?

Dogs have probably been perfecting this gene for over 20,000 years, and it may have arisen early in the history of dogs spending time among humans. So does your dog have this selfish gene? Probably, and if she stares at you, she is probably using it. Does my dog? Yes, I am sure she does.

Does it make me care about her any less? Not at all. The gene must be working.


  • Miho Nagasawa, Shouhei Mitsui, Shiori En, Nobuyo Ohtani, Mitsuaki Ohta, Yasuo Sakuma, Tatsushi Onaka, Kazutaka Mogi, Takefumi Kikusui. "Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds." Science 17 April 2015: Vol. 348 no. 6232 pp. 333-336
  • Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976, 1989, 2006.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Have you been manipulated?

MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on July 07, 2015:

Hi Dr Mark, How inteesting! We are [mostly] all aware that a dog can manipulate us just like a precocious 3yr old can run rings around her adoring daddy!

But I for one, had no idea why!

Now whether the scientists have hit upon the right answer or not, we can safely assume that it is how IT WORKS. So, we can now be on our guards, especially when food-loving dogs give you "the look" even after they have gulped down a big meal! No need to feel guilty.

Thanks, it's awesome.

Bob Bamberg on July 06, 2015:

I'll bet Ajej could even manipulate the most hardened poacher!

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 06, 2015:

You raise good points about "question everything". In my article on dogs staring I give the other alternatives, like looking for clues to our emotions, getting info about what is going to happen to them, etc.

And I do agree that this bonding probably does not happen everywhere. There are too many dogs in some areas (like Tanzania) that are still looked down as pariahs that have no part of the family. (They are still fed by the village families, though. Why?) Is it because these dogs lack the gene that causes oxytocin release in humans? The researchers seemed to assume that this gene is found in all dogs, but of course this has not been proven.

As far as it being a social revolution secondary to changing modes of human behavior, why does it occur so many disparate parts of the world?Pugs seem to have this ability and they have been pets for thousands of years, Cavalier Spaniels in England are not related but they have it too. Have these breeds inherited the gene to cause oxytocin release, or do they just attract humans because of their baby faces?

I think we still need a lot more info on this subject before we can decide the truth, but I do think this is an interesting area to keep looking into. Maybe their next step would be to examine a group of village dogs that live on the outskirts of human society and find out if this oxytocin mechanism is present.

In the meantime, I go on being manipulated!!!!

Bob Bamberg on July 06, 2015:

I don't know, Doc, maybe it's my lack of formal training in one of the natural science disciplines, but I don't buy the oxytocin thing causing humans to want to care for our babies or our dogs. And as you know, I don't have a lot of faith in studies because the data can...and has been shown to, on manipulated and fabricated to meet an agenda (ala Dr. Marc Hauser).

I can buy it in animals, who don't have the same brain power as we do, such as the ability to plan ahead (except maybe for chipmunks and squirrels), etc. But in people, there are just too many who aren't manipulated by the staring eyes, or the big round eyes. There are too many who show a lack of parenting or pet ownership skills.

A generation ago in the U.S., when dogs hadn't yet been elevated to the status of true family member, they lived outside, roamed the streets, never saw a vet unless they were sick or injured, couldn't be brought into stores, etc., it seems that oxytocin wasn't working then. And, it apparently isn't working in a lot of folks now.

To me, empirical evidence points to a social revolution, an epiphany of sorts, that happened in the 80's after leash laws were enacted. People have always demonstrated varying degrees of empathy, whether in raising children or managing pets. I believe, as free thinking beings, humans consciously select their level of attention to their children or pets, based on a number of factors.

Some are more conscientious than others, people learn from different role models, respond differently in life to the same education their classmates got, have varying value systems, etc. Where am I going wrong? Interesting hub, and voted that way.