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Bonding with Dogs

When the moon fills the sky like a big pizza pie - it's Oxytocin...

Loving our dogs and loving our human partners may be more closely connected than we thought. Most dog owners - especially agility handlers - have long known about the close bond that develops between dogs and humans. Agility enthusiast and scientist Kenneth Charman Hodge explains.

Scientists trying to understand this phenomenon have until recently concentrated on pyschological causes - survival needs, where we bond with animals because they help us to acquire food and stay safe; social support, where companionship meets a need for psychological well-being; or self psychology, where the animal actually supports and sustains our own sense of self. More recently, however, scientists have become increasingly excited about research that suggests the bonding process may be biological, as they investigate the role of a hormone known as oxytocin.

Bonding between human mother and suckling baby involves the hormone oxytocin. This hormone, also known as the 'Love Hormone' has a number of effects on the mother, and a good description can be read in Wikipedia. Oxytocin secretion occurs to a much lesser degree within some other suckling mammals, but recent discoveries have shown that, surprisingly, oxytocin plays a part in dog-human interaction i.e. interaction between two different animal species. Recent research also suggests oxytocin can increase trust in humans, and seems to allow animals to overcome their natural avoidance of proximity to other animals to form social bonds.

The first instance of published work on the role of oxytocin between dogs and humans I came across was in a fairly obscure paper written in 1999 by Professor Johannes Odendaal of Pretoria University. These were the days before the Internet so not many people knew about it.

Pendant inspired by oxytocin molecule
(image courtesy of emily-alice.com)

In 2008 a team of scientists in Azabu University, Japan, published a paper concluding that oxytocin was secreted in significant amounts when dog owners stroked and gazed into the eyes of their dogs. When I heard about it, I contacted the team who immediately sent me their paper, in Japanese. I thought 'if this is true, then this is the start of something big'. 

The paper was peer-reviewed, published in English and released to the scientific world. At first - silence. Then suddenly you could feel the scramble in universities to repeat the experiments. From Uppsala to Leipzig, Budapest to Missouri to Lincoln (yes, UK), departments were set up, papers came forth.

And the science of Human-Animal Interaction (HaI) was born. It is now called Anthrozoology, which sounds more scientific.

Where might we go from here?
There have been interesting studies of the levels of oxytocin and other hormones - particularly cortisol and insulin - and how they connect with the heart rate of dogs and their owners when they engage in short-term interactions. An especially interesting effect that has been observed is a decrease in levels of cortisol (hydrocortisone). Cortisol is a hormone released in stress which diverts sugar away from non-essential functions (such as the immune system!) so that the body can take the necessary action to avoid or confront danger. Long-term elevated cortisol levels can have profound detrimental effects on the body diabetes, heart disease, cancer (weakened immune system.) The more you read about cortisol, the less you want to know.

The research supports a suggestion that dog owners are more likely to live longer and remain healthier than non dog owners although it has to be said this is not proven. Returning to oxytocin, the 'love hormone', in the US you can buy oxytocin nose spray. I am not sure why, probably related to its more romantic qualities, but I suppose it is to compensate people without dogs.

What about agility dogs?
During agility training an competing, there is substantial interaction to pick up handler cues and instructions through voice, stance and body language. The trained dog uses eyes and ears, but this is high speed interaction at a distance. What else is involved we don't know. 

After oxytocin, there is more science in the pipeline. Think about this when you handle your dogs, it is not only about repetitive technical training, waving and shouting. Maybe some day we will be able to harness hormones to help us train and bond even better.

About the author...
Kenneth Charman-Hodge has a degree in zoology from the University of London and studied further ethology in the United States. He supports organisations fighting against dogs being abused, and those being exploited for fur and meat in Asia.

A business analyst by profession, he shares his life with two rescued collies.