Man’s best oxytocin enhancer
Dogs may not be people, says John Homans, but there’s a reason we think of them as members of our families.
STELLA’S WORLD IS in turmoil—not that you’d know it by looking at her. She’s on her spot on the rug, looking at me, waiting for the next thing, as usual. All seems placid, a dog on a rug, but beneath this tranquil scene, large forces are at work. The very definition of who she is, what goes on in her head, how she should be treated, and what rights she might deserve have all been shifting rapidly. Today the dog world is in the throes of political and ideological convulsions of a kind not seen since Victorian times, when the dog as we know it was invented. Put simply, the dog is now in the process of being reimagined.
I wasn’t aware of any of this when she arrived in our home. Stella was, to begin with, just a dog—although in many quarters these days, “just a dog” are fighting words. But dogs have been moving into households in ever more intimate arrangements. Close to 100 percent of dog owners talk to their dogs (and the few who say they don’t must be lying). Eighty-one percent view their dogs as family members, according to one study. And many of these family members sleep right in the bed, a privilege Stella didn’t get and, at any rate, didn’t seem to want. But she gets plenty of human privileges, starting with her diet, which features leftovers—sometimes, I’m sorry to say, straight from the table. A shockingly high number of people say that in certain life-threatening situations they would save their pet before they would save a fellow human. I hope I know what I’d do if facing that choice, but I’m glad I’m not likely to be put to the test.
Because, immediately, Stella was a family member. We couldn’t deny it. All of us spent a lot of time walking her, talking to her, analyzing and reanalyzing her quirks, her combustible mix of fear and excitement in the dog run, her dislike of the car, her abject terror of thunder, her varied and exuberant vocabulary. We worried about how she would spend the weekend if we weren’t with her.
Stella is an elegant creature, with a high-gloss black coat and the runway model’s trick of looking simultaneously gorgeous and ridiculous. She’s mostly a Labrador retriever—certainly in her goofball ways—but her splotchy purple tongue, curling scimitar tail, and brownish undercoat suggest chow blood, and sometimes I think there’s a hint of pit bull in her muscular, slightly bulging cheeks. She’s a Lab, definitely, but also a mutt, although that word, with its whiff of contempt for the mixing of breeds, is used much less than it once was.
I don’t think of Stella as a person in any conscious way. Yet I treat her as if she were a very unusual toddler. I endeavor to fill in the cartoon thought bubble over her head as well as I can. Sometimes the message is fairly clear. If she wants a run, she stands in front of me, ears slightly cocked, and fixes me with a hard stare, not angry but very definite. If the delay is too long—sometimes an hour, sometimes five minutes—she unfurls an ululating whine, all O’s and U’s, the meaning of which is unmistakable: Why won’t you take me? And that’s just one of her communicative vocalizations.
STELLA'S PLACE IN my household, with her preposterous human-like status, reminds me of Woody Allen’s joke about relationships at the end of Annie Hall. A man goes to a psychiatrist, complaining that his brother thinks he’s a chicken, and when the psychiatrist suggests getting the brother some help, the man replies: “I would, but I need the eggs.” An outsider looking at the place of dogs in our culture might think we were all suffering from some kind of mass delusion—but we definitely need the eggs.
At a chemical level, it may not matter that the dog is not a person. An increasing amount of evidence points to oxytocin, the all-purpose bonding hormone, as the crucial mediator in these effects—exactly the same mediator that underlies many significant human contacts, including the bond between mother and child. A 2009 study found that people’s urinary oxytocin spiked after interactions with their dogs. Interestingly, the length of the gaze was significant—those who looked longer into the eyes of their dogs got a bigger dose. The gaze is fundamental to the interaction between mother and infant—it’s the basic communicative building block. A dog’s willingness to gaze at a human is also one of the basic differences between dogs and wolves.
The role of oxytocin in dog-human bonding has interesting corollaries. While the hormone increases trust and attachment, it apparently doesn’t make people love everybody. In fact, it tends to reinforce the cohesion of our social groups, partly at the expense of outsiders. A Dutch study even found that the hormone can play a role in ethnocentrism. Oxytocin, the authors wrote, enhances not only in-group favoritism “but to a lesser extent, out-group derogation.” The love for one’s friends and family is accompanied by an increased dislike for those who are not in the group. This alarming yin and yang makes a lot of sense. I often wonder if I would save Stella before I’d save a stranger. I’d like to think not, and I hope never to have to choose—but it would certainly be something I’d struggle with.
Dogs actually do pretty well at providing our needed eggs. A long and fascinating thread of research, after three decades, has demonstrated that dogs produce measurable positive health effects on people. Though many aspects to this research are still disputed, the stress-reducing power of dogs is increasingly acknowledged.
A 1980 study of 92 patients who’d suffered either heart attacks or angina found that the patients with pets (any pet—even a snake) had measurably higher survival rates than those without. A larger study in 1995 came to a similar conclusion, except it found that dogs offered better results than other pets, possibly because they have to be walked.
Beginning in the 1990s, Karen Allen, a psychology professor, performed a series of studies that further refine the picture of the dog’s health benefits. In an ingenious experiment designed to find out whether dogs have an effect on everyday stress, she wired volunteers with electrodes and blood-pressure monitors and had them count rapidly backward by threes from a four-digit number, a task that seems simple enough but is actually fairly challenging after a few repetitions. People’s stress response when frantically counting backward was significantly reduced if a dog was on hand—even simply wandering the room—than if not.
This oxytocin effect may broker the various health effects of dogs. Oxytocin is the body’s stress reducer, calming people down and lowering their anxiety. Because our stress responses, so useful in dealing with conflict, are highly unhealthy over the long term, the oxytocin produced by petting our dogs may also help us live longer.
One study found that children who are raised with a pet are more empathetic than those who aren’t. The dog—no secret here—is also an excellent wingman. A 2008 study found that a man with a dog has a much better chance of getting a woman’s phone number than one without.
DOGS HAVE ALSO long been associated with people who are lonely or have trust issues, with misanthropes (Hitler was a dog lover), and with people with lots of money who think—perhaps accurately—that that’s the only reason anyone could love them. Leona Helmsley’s little dog Trouble, the richest dog in the world until his death in 2011, is the obvious example. The only charitable cause specifically mentioned in Helmsley’s will—her fortune was estimated at $5 billion at the low end—was to “provide for the care of dogs.” The document is testament to a moral impoverishment of mythic dimensions—the last bird the queen flipped at the little people.
A dog can be a last refuge for lost people. A kind of therapeutic solipsism is at work in this type of relationship. The dog fits perfectly into this sort of calculus because its needs are so simple—and of course, your dog doesn’t know you’re a narcissist. Loving a dog can be like looking into a mirror that strips away your bad qualities, your human spikes, reflecting only the pure, caring person you believe yourself to be. Relatedly, psychologists have confirmed what is obvious to anyone observing the dog’s place in the modern world: that loneliness amplifies our propensity for anthropomorphism. In the absence of people to interact with, we transmogrify our dogs into people.
It’s easy to think, looking at canines like Helmsley’s Trouble, that dogs are a species of emotional con men, wheedling their way into the hearts of weak people and extracting their bounty, whether it be a huge fortune or an extra piece of steak and a place in the bed. John Archer, an evolutionary psychologist, has gone so far as to suggest that dogs are social parasites. “Pets,” he wrote in a 1997 paper, “can be considered to manipulate the human species. They are similar in this regard to social parasites such as the cuckoo.... The affection, food, and time and energy devoted to a pet is not repaid in terms of related offspring and it could have been more profitably spent caring for human offspring and relatives.” Archer judged our relationships with our pets as “maladaptive behavior,” and though his argument is about evolution rather than about the day-to-day life with animals, it tends to reinforce the notion that there is something amiss with these increasingly intimate relationships.
Archer suggests that the “infant schema” of a dog’s face—essentially, the high forehead, big eyes, short snout, and floppy ears—might have evolved to take advantage of humans’ innate responses. These features elicit a human caregiver’s response. But there are an abundance of dispositive arguments one might make against Archer. For one thing, the spreadsheet over the centuries also contains many reasons humans choose to have dogs—for hunting, herding, and guarding. But the simplest reason might be because we want to. Dogs are a part of human culture in a way that is not reducible to simple calculations of cost and benefit—somehow they’re involved, like art or religion, in our higher functions. Stella is, for me, more than the sum of her cost in dog food.
Sometimes I thought people like Archer wanted to wish away the presence of dogs in our homes: all an illusion, nothing to see here. But the contrary evidence was right there, on the rug. Stella was more than a trickster—she was a friend, less communicative than those in my human circle, but this gave her her own distinctive excellences. Whatever Archer’s intentions, I could concede that he was right that somehow, by design or by evolutionary accident, dogs have become sublimely suited for life with us. They’ve been part of our ecosystem for millennia—and we are the central feature in theirs.
Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend by John Homans. ©2012 by John Homans.