If you are reading this, then I am probably bloggin’ to the choir. Most of us recognize that our love for our pets is deep and perhaps a bit of a mystery to us and others. I am often reminded of this when I explain how I don’t sleep very well unless I have my dog snoring and drooling on my shoulder. It isn’t the noise or drool I crave, but the contented look on her face when she takes that last big breath before she dozes off. It makes me happy and I have always suspected that there must be some sort of physiological response that occurs when we spend time with our charges. What is really going on here? Is there a scientific explanation behind those feelings? Yes, there is. And as you will read shortly, more studies come every day.
If asked why they love their dogs, most people will respond with some variation of the following:
- They provide unconditional love
- They are always there for me
- They are always happy to see me
- They don’t care if I have messed up at work
- They comfort me
And of course there is truth in this. But long ago and far away I was a biology major, and those four years of college forever shaped the way I look at things. I want to know the science behind things and have been especially intrigued by the strong connections people feel with their dogs. This has been driven in part by my own quest to understand my deep feelings for my dogs, but also the evidence all around of others’ feelings for their dogs. I have known people to sacrifice a relationship because the other person involved didn’t love their dog, or pass on an opportunity to vacation when the dog couldn’t go along, or who have gladly sacrificed their home furnishings to the comfort of their Fido. So are we all crazy?
The more I read the more I have come to blame, or appreciate ,depending on your view, oxytocin . Oxytocin is a hormone found in male and female mammals. The experiments I will refer to shed some scientific light on the issue of why we love our dogs so deeply and in no way do they diminsh these feelings.
Oxytocin – The Hugging and Cuddling Hormone
There are reports of studies that show a relationship between oxytocin and long-term relationships. These were same species studies. But now there is a paper, soon to be presented in Sweden at The 12th Annuual International Conference on the Human Animal Interactions, linking increased levels of oxytocin when people interact, either petting or gazing, at their dogs. This research was done by Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg and will be presented in July.
But many other studies have been done on the effects of oxytocin. It has long been called the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone.” It plays a big part in birth, sex , maternal behavior and even commitment. Much of the research has been done on voles and rats, but more and more is being done with humans. And there have been a number of surprising findings. For example, “investors” are likely to invest more when treated with an oxytocin inhaler than not.
A Dog Can Improve Your Math Skills!
I bet you don’t believe me but it has been shown that the presence of our beloved dog can markedly affect our ability to do mental math! On the other hand, the presence of friends has the exact opposite effect. The same is true when it comes to giving a speech. It is theorised that when the pressure is on and we are stressed, friends and are perceived as threatening and judgemental or “evaluative”,thereby increasing the stress. Karen Allen’s research involved only women and their pets. They were asked to perform some mental math and where tested under three scenarios – friend present, alone, or dog present. It wasn’t surprising to me that they performed significantly better with their pet present, less well if alone, and the worst if a friends was present.
Another interesting study was done on couples. They were asked to rate the level of “partner support” they experienced. They found that those who perceived higher levels of support from their partners also had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood.
One characteristic of autistic children is their difficulty in relating socially. If you are interested in how autistic children can benefit from actually training dogs, see my earlier post “How Can Autistic Kids and Dogs Work Together?” In 1998 a study was conducted comparing levels of oxytocin in “aloof” autistic children to normal children. The data clearly showed significantly lower levels of oxytocin in the autistic group. Social impairment was related to lower levels of oxytocin.
So if oxytocin increases bonding and trust, as as the studies above indicate, how does this fit in with the whole dog thing and our relationships with them?
Mystery Solved – Or Is It?
Now, back to the research that Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg and her colleagues have done recently. Female particpants rated the quality of their relationship with their dogs. The women then interacted with their dogs both petting them and talking to them. Oxytocin levels were measured. Higher oxytocin levels correlated with higher positive ratings of the participant’s relationship with their dog. But even more interesting, if the participants ranked their relationship as positive, the dogs themselves also had increased levels of oxytocin.
This finding interests me on so many levels. First, it scientifically authenticates my strong feelings toward my dogs. Secondly, it shows that my perception of my relationship has some physiological bearing on my dog as well. But another thought comes to mind. These experiments were done with Labradors. There are breeds which are considered more “neotenous” than Labs and I am wondering whether there might be a difference in the oxytocin levels in neotenous vs. less-neotenous breeds.
Neoteny is when traits that are baby-like or youthful are still present when they are adults. Think breeds with short muzzles and big eyes. A human infant’s head makes up 1/3 rd of the total length of the body. An adult head averages 1/7 th of the heigth. Now imagine a Pug’s head or a Bulldog’s head . Much closer to 1/3 rd than 1/7 th. It is speculated that these baby-like proportions in humans evoke in us that “Ahhhh, how cute!” and protective, parental emotions. Some even speculate that our idea of feminine beauty is neotenous. Men are seen to be most attracted to women with large, round eyes, small noses and chins, relatively large head and so on. All very debatable, but interesting nonetheless.
So if oxytocin is influential in lactation and maternal bonding and it is also released just by gazing into the eyes of our canine friend it makes sense that we have fashioned some breeds that are particularly neotenous. Neoteny could be one factor that enters into the release of oxytocin in ourselves. With the release of oxytocin come those feelings of bonding and maternal care. And thus those positive feelings in turn could bring about the increase in the release of oxytocin in Fido and that in turn may increase their bonding with us. A beautiful circular design! I wonder whether there is a difference in the levels of oxytocin released in humans when they interact with a neotenous vs. less-neotenous breed.
I wish I could be in Stockholm for the presentation of Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg’s findings, though I am sure that we will hear about it from the animal behaviorists and ethologists who attend.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said ” We are in very deep waters”.
Photo Credit: Dunechaser on flickr