Why you are your dog’s best friend

(This article was very kindly contributed by distinguished ethologist Professor Johannes Odendaal, who has virtually single-handedly put animal behaviour as a career on the map in South Africa, and who now runs the Ethology Academy ).

For a long time we were told that our dogs are our best friends. This belief was rarely challenged, because we know how we feel about our own dogs. What was questioned was whether the dogs get as much from the companionship as we do. Yes, we do provide food and shelter, but do the dogs really enjoy the emotional bonding in the same way we experience it? I think many people who know dogs well, will say – "of course"! However, there are people in this world who see pet dogs as "slaves". The "slavery" is defined in terms of the assumption that the dog has to do what the owner wants and that for a minimum reward, namely food. What we interpret as "love" from our dogs is actually a submissive serviceability in order to fulfill a basic need.

So, in science we often say, "what is measurable convinces". The question is how on earth does one measure your dogs’ happiness? Does one count how many times its tail is moving from side to side, how far does the tail swing from side to side or how fast does the tail move when the dog wags its tail? No, what we really want to know is simply whether dogs enjoy our friendship as much as we enjoy theirs.

Recently an experiment was conducted to evaluate just that. Physiological reactions indicated that we not only can measure happiness and friendship, but we can also establish who is gaining what from whom. The experiment included 18 people who love dogs and 18 well-tempered dogs. The two groups had to interact in a positive way, i.e., the people had to sit down and stroke the dogs and talking softly to them for a few minutes.

The next question was when does one take blood samples in order to establish whether the chemicals involved in "love" behaviour, did indeed change in the "right" direction. Well, we did know that if you stroke a dog, that your blood pressure would drop. In a pilot study we found that the dogs’ blood pressure will also drop during the same interaction. So a decreased blood pressure could be an indicator that the chemicals have also changed and that is exactly what we found. Baseline values were taken before interaction and after an average of 15 minutes of positive interaction. The blood pressure of both humans and dogs dropped with about 10 %.

From the six neurochemicals investigated, we found that endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, phenylethylamine and dopamine increased significantly and cortisol decreased. The first three chemicals are associated with short- and long-term affiliation, or bonding, between two parties. When this experiment was compared to changes that occur during quiet book reading these neurochemicals increased significantly more during dog interaction, indicating that humans bond better with dogs than books! Cortisol, a stress hormone, has decreased as expected during positive interaction.

The results have the following implications. Love for and from our dogs can be measured in normal physiological terms. Although other studies indicated the same chemicals in affiliation behaviour among members of the same species, this was the first time that results were obtained on an interspecies (across the species) basis. Other studies also only investigated the effect of a single chemical at a time, whilst this study compiled a neurochemical profile of positive human-dog interaction. What is, however, of more importance to us as dog people is that the dog experiences the same positive feelings than we do when we are interacting positively with our dogs. The fulfillment of these social or attention needs, could be the main reason why human and dog relationships are so successful over such a long time and among so many human societies. No wonder the dog is seen as the "prototype" of companion animals. They are not our slaves, we are our best friend’s, best friend.

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