There are specially designated labs in universities around the world—like the one Horowitz runs— assessing dog cognition, and there’s a hefty dose of bonding analysis involved, too. There are even imaging labs where dogs are (positively) trained to allow for the latest fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to try to “picture” how dogs’ brains work through patterns of brain activity—what they’re thinking and feeling and what they share with us. All of these pieces are part of a puzzle that’s gradually coming together.
The human bond with dogs is at least 15,000 years old, maybe more than twice that, and yet we keep discovering more about it. Lately, it’s with cutting-edge technology.
Researchers have known for some time that just being with a dog can lower our heart rate and our blood pressure (happily, it’s reciprocal; studies suggest we lower theirs, too). Research from a university in Hungary that used fMRI technology suggests that, among other things, dogs can distinguish emotional cues in our voices.
In particular, I’ve always enjoyed the kinds of observations that are about how dogs can be better companions than the people around us. Dogs can lower our stress even when our closest human connections fail.
In the 1990s, medical researchers at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York monitored the heart rate and blood pressure of hundreds of couples who were given stressful tasks to perform, such as making a speech or solving math problems. The results suggested that your dog will be of more comfort to you in a given stressful situation than your spouse.
Research has revealed that petting a dog (or cat, by the way) can reduce stress-related cortisol levels, that dogs are more expressive when we are looking at them, and that those of us who love dogs may live longer, healthier lives with them. A new report just this year has zeroed in on those expressive doggie eyebrows that lift up and, according to the experts, likely cause a nurturing response in us. It seems that the muscle responsible for that sweet puppy dog expression, so lacking in wolves, evolved because it’s something we favored in the canines who live among us.
As that eyebrow inquiry suggested, there is something magical and measurable that often happens when we look into each other’s eyes: We feel good. There have been analyses about that chemical connection and the release of oxytocin, the feel-good “love” hormone. Meg Daley Olmert wrote an entire book about it: Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond.
As Horowitz wrote to me, “If I think about the scientific aspects of dogs that make them such good companions, yes, it’s the oxytocin hit when we pet dogs or gaze at them; it’s their responsiveness to our gaze; [it’s] their looking us in the face, like a partner or friend. It’s also, for me, their being tuned in to aspects of me that I might not be awake to: for instance, their noticing a difference in my behavior when I’m sick or upset. Anecdotally, my dog picked up on my pregnancy before I did; non-anecdotally, we know that they recognize us by our smell, and can find lost humans by theirs. What is more personal than our smell? And yet dogs never complain about it: They revel in it.”
Dogs are spectacular beings and individuals, and they’re very much present as their own personalities in the lives of those of us who love them. In our email exchange, I had to agree when Horowitz kindly balked about labeling time alone with dogs as “solitude.” That’s especially valid if in any way that seems to negate a dog’s own very real presence.
So, how do they connect so deeply without making us self-conscious? They certainly don’t achieve that by ignoring us.
Horowitz has written that dogs watch us like no other animal watches us. My friend, the naturalist and best-selling author Sy Montgomery, amplified that point to me by phone one afternoon.
“No one will see you with as much love,” she said. “They hunger to know us. Dogs have made it their No. 1 job to know what we’re feeling; that’s more than any other animal.”
And, in reading us, dogs don’t get hung up on the attributes that we might feel self-conscious about around humans.
“Dogs see who you really are,” Sy said. “They don’t care about your eye makeup or if your hair is combed. They see right to your heart, and they don’t get waylaid by that other stuff.”
At our best, I hope we do the same for them.