Puppy love: How science explains our special relationship with dogs

Puppy love: How science explains our special relationship with dogs

As someone fortunate enough to have a wonderful Cavapoo, Buddy, in my life, I can fully vouch for the immeasurable benefits that dogs can provide to our well-being. I named it after the Bodhi tree which, according to Buddhist tradition, was the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. I did this hoping it would bring me more into the present moment and give me the balance I was looking for in life. And I can safely and gratefully say that he did that and so much more.

There is no doubt that many other dog owners will share the same sentiments, but you may not know that there is a large body of scientific work that supports what many of us have experienced for ourselves.

It’s well documented that dogs have an amazing sense of smell, but a recent study conducted at Queen’s University Belfast found that they actually can. Sensing when we are stressed by detecting chemical changes in our breath and sweat. And with extraordinary accuracy.

The researchers obtained sweat or breath samples from the participants before and after they completed a math problem. They also recorded the participants’ heart rates and blood pressure and asked them to self-report their stress levels before and after.

Particularly stressed participants’ pre- and post-samples were then presented to dogs that had been pre-trained with reward treats after correctly matching the scents.

On average, dogs can pick out a stress sample 93.75 percent of the time, with the best performers getting it right an incredible 96.88 percent of the time.

We all know from experience that our dogs seem to be able to tell when we are stressed, but how do they achieve this extraordinary accuracy? Researchers think it may be the change in smell associated with volatile organic compounds, or volatile organic compounds, that we produce when we’re stressed.

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Hundreds of volatile organic compounds are emitted by our bodies and can reflect the metabolic state we were in at the time. Body odor is the result of a combination of these typical sources include breath, perspiration, skin, urine and feces.

When we feel stressed, our autonomic nervous system triggers the hypothalamus to send hormonal signals to the pituitary gland and adrenal glands. The release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline causes an increased heart rate, increased perspiration, decreased saliva flow, and increased blood supply.

This cascade of hormones is associated with stress, and changes in our metabolic state have a detrimental effect on our breath, our perspiration, and the VOC components in them. Perhaps this is why our dogs seem to be able to notice and provide support when we are facing mental health challenges such as panic attacks, PTSD, and anxiety.

But what is going on in our bodies and brains that makes our relationship with our pets so special?

One theory is that the calming, therapeutic effect of pet dogs on us is due to social recognition—the mechanism by which we identify someone as significant and important to us. It is the basis of our ability to form meaningful social connections and relationships – and is an essential component of maintaining good mental health.

We own evolved To care for, protect and care for those with whom we have social ties. We understand that our pet dogs are ‘us’ and a person with whom they bond socially. This can create a brain interconnection network similar to the mother’s network. This mechanism could find its basis in oxytocin – a hormone that has a key role in mother-lactation bonding and is a chemical messenger involved in recognition and trust.

One study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital involved women looking at photos of themselves The child and their pet dog, and using fMRI showed similar responses in a brain region related to reward, emotion, and bonding.They found that the pictures of their dogs elicited similar brain responses in the mothers’ brains to the pictures of their children. Brain regions known to be important for functions such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing, and social interaction showed increased activity when the participants saw their child or dog. We really seem to love our dogs as much as we love our kids.

Of course, there are some things about our relationships with our canine companions that we likely won’t be able to measure objectively or scientifically. But whenever Bodhi greets me, tail wagging excitedly, when I come home after a long day at work, I know our bond is special.

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