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The human-canine bond – Part 1

The domestication of dogs as we know them, have always fascinated me. Mainly, because there are so many hypothesis’ about this subject, all existing because of hours of research scientists all over the world has put into it, and it just keeps on changing all the time.

Two South African researchers, Johannes Odendaal and Roy Meintjies, dabbled in research about Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the neurochemical that gets released when mammals give birth, it creates a feeling of safety and it is a big part of creating social bonds.   Oxytocin levels in dogs double when having friendly interactions with their humans. One theory is, that this is how the human-canine bond came about.

In 1979 (Pedersen, et al), it was scientifically proven that when virgin rats were injected with the Oxytocin, maternal concern kicked in towards the pups. Virgin rats, naturally tend to avoid baby rats. In another study, unfamiliar mice were injected with Oxytocin, and the mice would play together as if they were life long friends. Without the ability to generate Oxytocin (removed via brain surgery), they did not even recognise each other, it was like their memory had gone blank, and they were not able to build new social bonds.

Meg Daley is in agreement and her theory is that Oxytocin is just an important and primitive factor when a bond between a human and an animal is created. It’s a universal chemical that enables animals to feel safe and accepted, and for social animals (including humans) that feeling is essential for survival.

According to Kerstin Moberg, there are three stages to form a close relationship.

  • Let’s say a dog is approached by a human, and this experience was non-threatening and pleasant, Oxytocin will encourage the dog to approach.
  • The next step would be for the dog to interact with the human, let’s say by sniffing the human. The human might then decide to gently touch the dog.
  • The oxytocin that’s released leads to many physiological responses, like lowering blood pressure, lowering heart rate and stress hormone levels. It also restores bodily functions like growth and energy storage and therefor produces the last stage to forming the social interaction, which is relaxation.

In the middle of the Ice-Age, humans started to become more social towards each other, humans started drawing animals all over their cave walls. Shamans believed that humans can become animals, animals gained more consideration than just being food on the table.   Wolves, started lurking around the humans’ cooking pots, and their pups followed them around. Wolf puppies were ‘adopted’ by the Paleolithic people and given just as much attention as their own children received. Could the end of the ice age have been the beginning of the human-canine bond?

By Tersha, Trainer