By Steve Dale
Tribune Media Services
Just look at a puppy or kitten and you probably feel good. There's a reason for that, according to certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, of Madison, WI.
"It's a hormone called oxytocin," she says, "And that makes us feel all gooey, which increases after, say, a 20-minute session with a dog who simply looks at you. That hormone makes us feel good, partly by suppressing another hormone called cortisol (sometimes called the stress hormone). In other words, there's physiology to explain why we're all stupid in love with our pets."
McConnell researched the impact of oxytocin and our relationships with pets in her book, "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend" (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, $24.95; 2006).
"Lately, there's been a lot of research on oxytocin in other mammals (aside form people or dogs). Oxytocin is clearly related to child rearing and social bonding," says McConnell. "If you give a (mother) sheep a substance that blocks oxytocin, she rejects the lamb. If you supplement oxytocin, (mother) sheep become more nurturing and more protective of their lamb. In some species of social mice, the dads do the child rearing. It turns out, in these species the males have higher oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a social glue that bonds us to our puppies, kitties, horses and cockatoos."
The explanation of why we love dogs is often ascribed to the non-judgmental love they have for us. But our love for dogs goes deeper. Besides, McConnell says, dogs actually don't always love us unconditionally.
McConnell recalls one woman attending a herding demonstration with a Border Collie who clearly didn't like her owner. By all accounts, the woman loved her dog and never physically abused the pet, or anything like that. The dog simply didn't like her, and the owner had no idea.
"The dog literally winced every time she touched her dog," says McConnell. "It was awful for me to watch."
Who's fault is this sort of mismatch? Well, perhaps you could blame the adoption counselor at a shelter, or maybe people yearning for a certain "look" without considering a dog's personality and their own lifestyle. Sometimes, mismatches just happen. When they do, McConnell is an advocate of re-homing.
"Greater love hath no owner than to realize their dog needs something you can't give them. I've re-homed two dogs," says McConnell. "I had a puppy who just hated change, and I'm on the road all the time. He was a Border Collie who constantly needed to work; my four dogs and seven sheep just wasn't enough.
"Most responsible people think, 'well, I just can't pass off this dog like it's a toaster.' And they're right," McConnell notes. "But sometimes, it's the right thing to do. I re-homed (that Border Collie) to a farm with 400 sheep. I knew he would be a happier dog, and he is a happier dog. I can still sob about it. I loved him. But I loved him enough to do the right thing."
McConnell adds the most effective way you can demonstrate your love, and also a great tool for training dogs, is through play. Try acting like a dog. Pretend to mimic a play bow. It's a happy signal eliciting play; as your dog bends his their front legs, and stick his butt in the air - try to do the same.
"We're not very good at it," McConnell says and laughs. "But it's fun for us to try, even if we make fools of ourselves. Another one is 'stop and start.' Lunge a foot forward, then move back fast, to the side, then forward. Either your dog will say, 'OK, fun, let's play,' or think you're crazy."
McConnell says, "Sometimes I wonder what dogs think of us. They clearly know we're not dogs, but what are we? We're creatures with happy faces, who never grow muzzle, who have less functional teeth. Some of us are pretty endearing, but others are unpredictable. We have a disabled sense of smell but are still really amazing hunters able to go to a big box and instantly create a meal."
"What other two different species on the planet will risk their lives for the other?" asks McConnell. "I argue the relationship we have with dogs is a biological miracle."
Write to Steve at TMS, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state.
(c) 2010 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
This was printed in the April 25 - May 8, 2010 edition.