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Health May 2018

Bowwow Bounty

By Carrie Slayback

Oxytocin, a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland is sometimes called “the love hormone,” responsible for relationships and bonding is present in childbirth AND in the strong physical/emotional attachment to an animal.

Steve, a volunteer coach, stood at the center of our seniors’ running group, giving strict instructions to each of us. An exacting engineer on weekdays, Steve becomes a running statistician on weekends, figuring out personalized workouts for each marathon hopeful. When he came to me, he skipped the pace and distance directives.

“You, Carrie, do not stop to talk to every dog!”

I did. I still do. But not every dog — not those goal-oriented working dogs — muzzle forward, eves fixed. However the friendly Fidos who signal me with welcoming eyes, wagging tails, leash straining in my direction — I stop, pet, talk to, hear owner’s stories. I’m lost in moments of sheer joy.

Now I understand why. I am an addict. My drug of choice is oxytocin, released by puppy-dog eyes, and furry touch. Frontiers of Psychology’s 8000-word abstract with 150 citations, published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explores human animal interaction and delivers convincing evidence:

Oxytocin, a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland is sometimes called “the love hormone,” responsible for relationships and bonding is present in childbirth AND in the strong physical/emotional attachment to an animal.

Dogs are particularly suited to be human love objects. Genetic wolves, the domesticated dog evolved over 32,000 years, selected from among wolf puppies for qualities of nonaggression, cooperative spirit, attentiveness to humans, tolerance of human activities, and abilities to take part in hunting/protecting the group. The dog understands the role of family member from his wolf antecedents. The canid pack works together for survival with well-defined roles of alpha hunter, parent, second in command, and babysitter. Wolves communicate by facial expression — their black lips curl back or relax revealing acceptance, rejection, threat. When part of a human family, dogs observe repeated human patterns of behavior and respond with what we interpret as cognition. They recognize members of their human pack and many take the role of protector.

Besides being  particularly suited to register loyalty and acceptance, dogs depend upon us for shelter, food and water. It is no wonder that our hormonal response is akin to parenthood. And now we know the bond is reciprocal. Studies show that dogs respond to human eye contact with a spike in oxytocin.  Hormonally, it might be said that we really do love each other.

Results of the oxytocin system, activated by human/animal contact:

  • Stress relief occurs, anxiety, depression decreases.
  • Elevated empathy, improved trust toward others, reduced aggression.
  • Protective effect on cardiovascular risk, lowering blood pressure.
  • Improved immune system function.
  • Enhanced  pain management
  • Fewer sleep problems, fewer doctor visits, less work time missed.
  • Social/health benefits to all people, but especially to those living without children/partners.
  • Improved learning ability.
  • Eye-contact plus tactile experience increases positive effects.
  • Long-term relationship with one dog increases positive effects.

Here is one last oxytocin benefit derived from living with your pooch. The NIH article
lists increases of the function of the nervous system controlling the gastrointestinal  tract leading to “enhanced digestive function, growth and restoration.”

What more can you ask for? Love, warm feelings, less stress and depression, increased health, better sleep, more friends, and better digestion!

Get a dog, or at least stop and pet your neighbor’s. I still stop for dogs. It’s not a break from my workout, I’m magnetized to a friendly dog face. Secretly, I do not want to hurt the dog’s feelings by ignoring a greeting. I won’t apologize to my coach. I need dogs. Dogs need me. We share a happy hormonal symbiosis.

Like a teenager, I’m driven by my hormones.

 

Carrie Luger Slayback an award winning teacher and champion marathoner, shares personal experience and careful research. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .