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Oxytocin and Social Behaviour in Dogs and Other (Self-)Domesticated Species: Methodological Caveats and Promising Perspectives

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Humans' tolerant temperament has been proposed to have enabled the evolution of unique forms of human cooperation and advanced social cognition. Comparative studies on non-human animals have confirmed such a central role of socio-emotional processes, as species characterized with low aggression have been ...

Humans' tolerant temperament has been proposed to have enabled the evolution of unique forms of human cooperation and advanced social cognition. Comparative studies on non-human animals have confirmed such a central role of socio-emotional processes, as species characterized with low aggression have been found to outperform closely related but less tolerant species (e.g., dogs vs. wolves, bonobos vs. chimpanzees) in cooperative and communicative tasks of social cognition. Based on mounting evidence of functional similarities in the social behaviour of dogs and humans, domestication, and possibly other environmental conditions selecting for reduced social fear and aggression, has been proposed to lead to evolutionary convergence with humans, suggesting that dogs can serve as a model species for the study of human social behaviour.

Oxytocin, an ancient neuropeptide universal in social mammals might have played a central role in the molecular changes underlying the evolution of such socio-emotional characteristics. Oxytocin indeed plays a key role in down-regulating fear reactions, in modulating social approach, affiliation and bonding in various species as well as a range of complex social skills in humans, such as trust and emotional recognition. It has also been shown that variations caused by genetic polymorphisms of the oxytocin receptor gene, for instance, modulate the functions of oxytocin system. With the combination of these two lines of research a new initiative has recently been launched to better understand the neuro-hormonal aspects of social behaviour and its cognitive and emotional functioning in humans, other apes, domestic dogs, and most recently also wolves. Studying the relationship between different aspects of social behaviour and the oxytocin system in the dog and other domesticated species is a promising new research area which may also have translational relevance for understanding the neuro-hormonal bases of human social cognitive abilities.

The first pioneering papers in the field of oxytocin research suggest a complex interplay between the oxytocin system and social behaviour. Although these findings have been published in high-impact journals, there are several methodological and conceptual issues that have not yet been well-addressed. Namely, there is a wide variety of methods and protocols to assess the behavioural effects of oxytocin, which led to inconsistent results. This is partly due to the fact that the methods used to measure peripheral oxytocin levels and to administer exogenous oxytocin greatly vary. Furthermore, although we have some information about the genetic variations in the oxytocin receptor gene in humans and dogs, very little is known about related differences across different populations and about modifying environmental effects.

In order to promote the development of the investigation of social-behavioural effects of oxytocin, this Research Topic aims at bringing together contributions from researchers in social cognition and related fields, whose work addresses cutting-edge questions and important gaps in our understanding of the behavioural effects of oxytocin in dogs. For this Research Topic, we, therefore, welcome (i) correlational studies measuring oxytocin in the periphery (urine, saliva, blood) or in the cerebro-spinal fluid, (ii) gene × behaviour association studies involving e.g. receptor (OXTR) polymorphisms and (iii) experimental studies manipulating (both the peripheral and central) levels of oxytocin using intravenous or intranasal administration. The main focus of this Research Topic is put on direct and indirect comparisons of dogs and other domesticated species to their wild-living relatives, including humans and non-human primates. However, submissions from outside the domain of domestic animal studies, including, theoretical contributions (review and opinion papers) and molecular studies of the oxytocin system will also be considered if the content is relevant (e.g. from a general methodological viewpoint) to the newly emerging field of oxytocin research.


Keywords: dog, oxytocin, social behaviour, intranasal administration, gene-behaviour associations


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