I love dogs, and dogs typically love me. Maybe it is because I give them so much attention, but they tend to find me very interesting.
In my reading the past few years about attachment and neurology, the hormone oxytocin keeps popping up. This morning, as I was petting my dog, Keeva, I wondered again: do dogs produce oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone/neurotransmitter (technically a nonapeptide) produced in the brain (thalamus area), then transported to the pituitary gland where it is secreted. Originally identified in 1906, oxytocin was found to facilitate childbirth and breastfeeding, however, in the past few years oxytocin’s role in relationships has been studied more intensely.
Oxytocin is variously called the hug hormone, the cuddle chemical, and the moral molecule. In humans, researchers have found that cuddling with a significant other stimulates increased production of oxytocin resulting in higher feelings of closeness, empathy, and trust. Giving subjects a shot of oxytocin in their noses resulted in more generosity with money and more compassion in conflict. Oxytocin has been implicated in mother-child bonding as well as pair bonding in adults. New treatments using oxytocin are being explored for treating the social deficits for individuals on the autism spectrum.
Oxytocin not only seems to result from nurturing and bonding behavior, but alsointensifies feelings of connectedness and bonding. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, oxytocin production also calms the amygdala—the threat detector, the first alarm center of the brain. This explains in part why, when we are scared, the first person we want to talk to is our primary attachment figure. When we receive the desired response from the loved one, we feel calmer.
So what about dogs? Do dogs produce oxytocin?
A report last year in the magazine Science found that simply gazing into each other’s eyes produced higher levels of oxytocin in both dogs and their owners. They also found that dosing the dogs with oxytocin intranasally resulted in longer gazing, more oxytocin production, and more reported feelings of connectedness and bondedness in the humans.
This is something I have suspected for a while, that when I love on Keeva, I increase both her levels of oxytocin and mine and I strengthen the trust, bond, and connection between us. The more I love on her, the more she trusts and loves on me.
But more importantly, how do we use this information to strengthen people relationships?
The attachment folks tell us over and over about the need to focus on attachment behaviors—specifically eye contact, attachment touch, attachment voice, and leave-taking & rejoining rituals—all activities that stimulate oxytocin production.
1. Eye Contact: If you watch couples in love, close friends talking, or mothers and babies, you will see them making intense and prolonged eye contact, like the dogs in the Science study. Sadly, as our children (and our marriages) get older we often make less eye contact, and sometimes only in conflict. A practical suggestion is to spend one on one time with your spouse, child, or friend face to face, focusing on making extensive eye contact while listening, with and without words.
2. Attachment Touch: This includes non-sexual caresses, gentle touches on the shoulder as you pass, hugs, kisses, unnecessary touch throughout the day, every day that says, “I see you, I hear you, I know you are there, I love you, I am committed to you”. Pet your kids, your spouse, and your friends as much as you pet your dog.
3. Attachment Voice: Ever notice that when you talk to your dog or your baby you use a special tone of voice? It is not necessarily baby talk, but is a way of speaking that is distinctly different. Usually it is a higher tone, more musical and expressive, maybe including nonsense sounds, nicknames, etc. Try using an adaptation of this voice with your loved ones. If they ask what you are doing, tell them you are trying something new to help them to feel how important they are to you.
4. Leave-taking/Rejoining Rituals: Whenever you leave your loved ones, whether for shorter or longer periods of time, it is vital that you say, “Good-bye” with intentionality, attention, and presence. When you come back together it is also vital to do so intentionally, with attention, and presence. Often in the busyness of life we neglect leave-taking and rejoining rituals, and do subtle damage to our relationships. When you say “Goodbye” and “Hello again” intentionally, you are communicating, “I see you, I hear you, you matter to me, I love you, and I am committed to you”. When you neglect such expressions, you subtly communicate the opposite, “you are invisible to me, you don’t matter, I don’t have time for you, and I am not committed to you.” You may not be intending to communicate these things, but they come across non-verbally. In this same vein pay particular attention to bed-time rituals. Marriage researcher, Stan Tatkin, is famous for stating that everyone, child and adult,needs to be put to bed at night.
As you begin working on these behaviors, notice the emotions that come up. It is likely the feelings will be positive. Enjoy them, prolong them, sit with them, and let them seep deeply into you. But you may find some negative emotions mixed in with the positive feelings: do you sense anger, resentment, hopelessness, fear, or worthlessness? These feelings may be markers of unresolved hurts in you or the relationship and they block your full enjoyment of the lovely effects of oxytocin. Take note of negative feelings and journal and pray to identify and begin resolving them. Once resolved you will be able to delight in the fruits of all of the hard work that you have put into your relationships.
And do not neglect Fido! We all need as much oxytocin as we can get.