For those that haven’t owned a dog this may be a difficult one to grasp, but, the term “man’s best friend” really does have a biological reason behind it. So, for the ’sciency stuff, it all seems to come down to a couple of hormones swirling around in our brains, with the two main protagonists being oxytocin and the closely related vasopressin. Although it is something of a generalisation, oxytocin makes us less aggressive, more socially attuned, trusting and empathetic. Individuals treated with oxytocin become more faithful partners and more attentive parents. In sheep it lets them learn the smell of their offspring and facilitates female monkeys grooming their offspring.
So How Does This fit in with the Increasing Bond I Feel with my Dog?
Sometime in the past fifty thousand years (which is a fraction of the period that oxytocin has existed) the brains of humans and wolves evolved a new response to oxytocin: when a dog and its owner (but not a stranger) interact, they secrete oxytocin. The more of that time is spent gazing at each other, the bigger the rise. Give dogs oxytocin and they gaze longer at their humans… Which in turn raises the humans’ oxytocin levels. So, a hormone that evolved for mother-infant bonding plays a role in this bizarre, unprecedented form of bonding between species.
Oh, and there’s more. Oxytocin helps to inhibit the fear and anxiety centre in the brain and helps activate a part of the nervous system associated with calmness. So, if walking your dog is your way of de-stressing then there is actually some real science behind what you’re doing.
But how does the dog bond with you?
As we have discussed, the way in which we bond with our dog is something extremely special. But the dog doesn’t just help you to stay calm, they can also help you in so many more ways. Dogs with their heightened sense of smell can detect the change in hormone production within our brains. This means that they can smell the rise and fall in certain brain chemicals, this is why when a human feel depressed a dog will commonly try to comfort their owner and try to cheer them up. Dogs and their unconditional love play a massive role in helping humans deal with emotions and feelings. So much in fact that they can have a positive effect on mental health issues.
So, what does all this mean?
So, the status of ‘man’s best friend’ is more than deserved for our little canines. At first glance, a dog is just another living being that we walk and care for, but when we delve deep into what they actually do for us they become so much more. We create a bond that exceeds just friends, they become an individual member of the family. Not only do we bond with them during the best of times but also through the worst. They are so much more than just the family pet.