Walking home in the pouring rain this morning I was struck once again by the personality of our dog, Bella. Many times I have commented that she is the very embodiment of joy – her sheer delight on a walk, her unconditional greeting when you return home from an half and hour at the shops, her total devotion to a cuddle on the sofa. She appears to live entirely in the present, accepting and embracing what comes next, her bed, her walks, and her playtime. Yet she is a dog, in her mind not given to human principles and emotions. We as her owners project our humanness, we attempt to rationalise her behaviour as per our own but dog or not, I believe there is learning for us in her dog world of living in the moment. She greats every moment with total dancing abandonment – walk in the tipping rain, YES! Really long walk up Hay Bluff – let’s go! Affection, hers is limitless. Food? Ah food, in Bella her least doglike behaviour is around food. Here she turns into a totally submissive creature, slinking across the floor, requiring our unconditional confirmation that yes, she may eat and even then she often chooses not to. It’s odd behaviour that we don’t understand. But why should we understand, she’s a dog!
But looking into those fathomless brown eyes, she is more than a dog to us as a family. Our son regularly exclaims ‘those eyes,’ and mimics Bella’s soulful stare. I cuddle her and am lost in those eyes, she looks right at me as if the answer to the universe is somehow stored within. But she is neither our best friend or our baby, she’s a dog!
News flash: We aren’t nuts humanising our dog as if we think we Bella is our best friend or baby. Why not? The bond is woven from the same stuff that merges mothers and infants. And, guess what? We aren’t imagining Bella makes us feel better either.
The organizers of the 12th International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions scientists presented their latest findings confirming that friendly human-dog interaction releases oxytocin in both human and dog. If hormones could win popularity contests, oxytocin might well be queen of the day. Given oxytocin’s connection to such life-affirming activities as maternal behaviour, lactation, selective social bonding and sexual pleasure, researchers have been working overtime to uncover its role in the brain and in regulating behaviour.
Oxytocin is produced mainly in the hypothalamus, where it is either released into the blood via the pituitary gland, or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord, where it binds to oxytocin receptors to influence behaviour and physiology.
The experiment found that women and their dogs experienced similar increases in oxytocin levels after ten minutes of friendly contact. Also the women’s oxytocin response was significantly correlated to the quality of the bond they reported in a survey taken prior to the interacting with their pets.*
This rang a bell in my mind recalling a news article on BBC exploring how researchers in Japan have developed a robot in the shape of a seal that they say can provide physical and emotional support to the sick and elderly. Japan’s robotic technology is among the most advanced in the world. The jury is out on whether this represents a disturbing turn in our treatment of the elderly or whether it’s the best caregiving gadget ever invented.
The therapeutic robot, named Paro, makes a seal-like noise and moves its head and tail. It is fitted with artificial intelligence software and tactile sensors that allow it to respond to touch and sound. It can show emotions such as surprise, happiness and anger, can learn its own name and learns to respond to words that its owner uses frequently. A study** has found that interacting with a therapeutic robot companion made people with mid- to late-stage dementia less anxious and also had a positive influence on their quality of life. Does petting Paro make people feel better in the same way that petting Bella does?
Paro’s large blinking pool like eyes evoked the same response in our son to Bella’s eyes, ‘those eyes!’ And whilst recognising the sadness of someone’s loneliness being assuaged by petting an electronic animal (having seen the response in my husbands grandmother when my mother in law took her dog into the nursing home for her to cuddle,
in her dementia induced haze, the most base human response of love and affection flickered in her response to the
dog), in the reality of today’s short changed world at least there are gadgets that can evoke this oxytocin response.
Shakespere or Da Vinci (or perhaps even Cicero further back intime tell us that “the eyes are the window to your soul.” They didn’t say that those eyes had to be human!
* These findings come from the lab of Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, an M.D. and Ph.D. at Uppsala University in Sweden. Dr. Uvnas-Moberg is also a pioneer in the study of oxytocin and its social bonding and anti-stress effects. Dr. Uvnas-Moberg’s findings that high levels of oxytocin, naturally occurring during breastfeeding, were linked to a mother’s increased sense of calm and desire to make social connection.
Prof Cook, Professor of Nursing at Northumbria University