We already know about a myriad of benefits that sharing our lives with canine companions can bring us, but the way they affect us on a biochemical level was brought back into the spotlight in a recent op-ed about the real chemistry we have with them.
Brian Hare, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and research scientist Vanessa Woods highlighted studies that demonstrate the changes in our bodies that take place when we interact with dogs, whether it’s getting a big wet kiss, petting them or just sharing a gaze. Namely they explored the way oxytocin levels are altered.
We’ve known about oxytocin for a while now. It’s a brain chemical that has been dubbed the “love drug,” “cuddle chemical” and “hug hormone” and is involved in social bonding. Among other things, it helps us build intimate relationships with each other and helps mothers bond with their newborns, but it also surges when we interact with other species.
A study conducted in Japan with dogs and their owners showed that people whose dogs gazed at them for longer than two minutes had higher levels of oxytocin and said they were happier with their dogs than people whose dogs only looked at them for about a minute.
Another study showed that people who kiss their dogs more also had higher levels of oxytocin. Interestingly, this study found other factors affecting the levels, including the owner’s belief that caring for their dogs was not difficult or a burden and using fewer treats. (Maybe dog parents who don’t secretly suspect they’re being used as mere treat dispensers feel a little more genuinely loved.)
In South Africa, a study involved placing dog owners in a room with their dogs while a nurse drew blood once at the beginning and again after 30 minutes. Not only did they see changes in people, but also in the dogs:
The researchers found that participants’ blood pressure decreased, and they experienced an increase in not only oxytocin, but also a whole other range of hormones, including beta-endorphins, which are associated with euphoria and pain relief; prolactin, which promotes bonding associated with parenting behavior; phenylethylamine, which tends to increase when people find a romantic partner; and dopamine, which increases pleasurable sensations.
The studies aren’t recent, and we probably don’t need science to tell us about the special human-animal bond we have with dogs or how good it feels to have a relationship with one, but the more attention dogs get for being more than “just dogs,” and the more scientists and behaviorists help us understand what they need and why they behave the way they do, the better our relationships with them will be.
Hare and Woods also founded Dognition, a project that aims to develop the largest collection of data on canine cognition to date with the ultimate goal of helping owners better understand their dogs and the way they see the world. They’re doing this by recruiting dog owners as citizen scientists and showing them how to use the same tests with their dogs that are used in labs to see how they do in five categories: empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning.
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