One of the great pluses of the UK’s current sort-of-lockdown is the chance to spend more time with my border collie Martha (pictured). She lies quite content by my side while I work in my home office, appearing somewhat bemused, and is not adverse to making an impromptu vocal contribution to any online class or meeting. There’s something comforting about the presence of our oldest companions, isn’t there, and others clearly feel the same as sales and rehoming of dogs are both experiencing a boom. But how exactly do dogs make us feel better, and what’s in it for them?
Dogs are probably the oldest animal we humans have domesticated. According to the Canine Cooperation Hypothesis, their high social-attentiveness and tolerance made dogs the ideal candidate to evolve traits for both cooperation and companionship, aiding us for thousands of years in our hunting and gathering. Over the centuries, they gradually adopted a new role, that of a sort of furry mental health practitioner, providing comfort and reassurance when times are bad. That’s particularly important at present with many of us experiencing enforced solitude, physically detached from our normal human social networks through isolation. The presence of a dog doesn’t just give us someone to talk to and a reason for maintaining a routine, it also has a very positive effect arising from our brain’s accompanying responses. Patting a dog in particular can generate positive emotional responses, stimulating the release of the hormone oxytocin which makes us feel relaxed, reduces stress and anxiety, and is exactly the same neurohormonal response a parent experiences when making eye-contact with their newborn child. No wonder Battersea Dogs Home has seenrehoming more than doublesince the Covid-19 crisis began!
Although some people are sniffy about the notion of dogs experiencing emotions too, however, the science tells us the human-canine bond really is two-way traffic. Studies have found many dogs (including my own Martha) prefer attention and interaction to other forms of reward, including food and other treats. More interestingly, although even the largest canine brain is barely the size of a lemon, it has a caudate nucleus pretty much the same as ours, it releases oxytocin and the pleasure transmitter dopamine when we pat or interact with the dog, and it generally produces the same calming relaxing sensations in our four-legged companions as we experience ourselves.
And here’s the rub when it comes to the Covid-19 situation… mere proximity is enough to trigger that response in Martha, which is why she will happily lie near my desk while i’m at work on my computer, but only if she is way closer than current human personal space recommendations mandated by the government. Put another way, social distancing doesn’t cut any ice with dogs, i’m afraid! If we want them to make us feel calm and happy, we need to let them feel calm and happy too, and that for a dog is way closer than any two metres. Just as well the science is also telling us that this is much safer than being with another human.
So there we are. Dogs make us feel good in the current pandemic lockdown and we in return are – at least neurologically speaking – doing pretty much the same for them. This perhaps explains why so many are now turning to canine companionship in their hour of need. Let’s hope though that the bond isn’t a transient one, but the start of a lasting relationship. A dog is for life, not just for Covid-19 folks!