Why We Love Our Dogs!
We have been dog owners for a long time. The house seems too quiet and clean when there isn’t a dog around. And we miss the affectionate greetings every time we come through the front door. Dogs are unconditional love. What happens to us that we create such tight bonds with our dogs? How does an animal become a family member?
There has been some research on this very topic – no doubt from a dog owner. As it turns out, our canine friends have the ability to produce oxytocin (a neurochemical responsible for the bonding between a mother and baby). The release of oxytocin creates a strong emotional bond between you and your dog. A feedback loop of continued gazing into your dog’s eyes will create more oxytocin for you and your dog and bonding occurs. Oxytocin produces other physiological changes as well. It can decrease heart rate, slow down breathing, lower blood pressure, and inhibit the production of stress hormones. These reactions result in a sense of calm, comfort, and focus. All of these things can happen from petting a dog!
The Key to Our Sense of Well-Being
There are other neurochemicals that are released when interacting with your pet. You boost levels of beta-endorphins (natural painkillers) and dopamine (reward hormone). These neurochemicals are key to our sense of wellbeing. A study by University of Missouri researchers demonstrated that petting dogs caused a spike of serotonin – a neurotransmitter anti-depressants try to elevate. That is a lot of brain action just from interacting with your dog.
Oxytocin - the Bonding Neurochemical
There have been studies to confirm that oxytocin actually works in the manner proposed. This study was small: thirty pairs of humans and canines had urine collected prior to interaction and the level of oxytocin was measured. Then participants gazed and interacted with their dog for a half-hour. Urine samples were then collected again and measured for levels of oxytocin. The results were pretty astonishing. There was a 130% oxytocin spike in the canines and a 300% spike in their human counterparts.
This finding confirmed that significant bonding can occur over a short period of time. The mutual oxytocin release between people and dogs aids in a better understanding of why service dogs are so effective for people with autism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Why Dogs Have an Impact on Human Health
Another study is worth mentioning. Lindsey Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, wanted to find out why dogs have a positive effect on human health. On a weekly basis she would bring shelter dogs to a residential treatment center for teen boys. She was doing measurements of mood and emotions with the teens that interacted with the dogs and comparing them to a group of teens who played sports and video games for the same amount of time.
The boys playing with the dogs reported increases in cheerful feelings, attentiveness, and serenity. They also reported decreased sadness. Teens with ADHD, depression, and PTSD all showed dramatic improvement while interacting with the dogs. Ellsworth believes that dopamine (the feel good hormone) is released when the teens are waiting for the dogs to arrive at the center, and is released when they actually play with them.
Our Pets - An Integral Part of Our Family
These studies show us why our pets become such an integral part of our families. And it is also helps us understand why we grieve when they pass.
So to Springsteen, Orbison, Harrison, and Jester – thank you for your unconditional love, the ability to quiet my brain, and many years of joy. The memories of all of you are locked in my heart. To Cooper, our newer rescue dog, you had me at your first doggy kiss when we picked you out. And, to Maximus – Max, your soulful eyes melt my heart. All of you had different personalities but I loved and love you all the same. I am pretty lucky!
Becker,K. (August 7, 2013). A groundbreaking solution for ADHD and depression – as close as your own backyard? Retrieved August 20, 2015 from http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2013/08/07/dog-human-brain-chemistry.aspx
Montgomery,S. (January 12, 2015). Psychological effects of pets are profound. Retrieved August 20, 2015 from http://bostonglobe.com.
Schwartz,R. (April 17, 2015). How dogs hack our brains to make us love them the way we love human babies. Retrieved August 20, 2015 from http://magazine.good.is/articles/those-puppy-dog-eyes.