What Your Dog Wants
Exploring the connection between humans and their animals
Posted May 05, 2015
Maggie is my 6 year old Labradoodle. I take her for expensive haircuts. She receives the best medical care. Eats gourmet organic snacks every day. When I am at work, she gets extra attention from a dog walker that I carefully interviewed and vetted before hiring.
I buy Maggie the best of everything and barely consider the costs. I hardly treat myself this well, and, apparently, I’m not alone. I am one of the 62% of U.S. households that contains at least one pet; and we spend over $45 billion each year to keep them healthy and happy.
Research has shown that we reap a myriad of physical benefits from living with our pets, including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and a healthy lifestyle that results in fewer visits to a doctor. Another study conducted by psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University not only confirms the physical rewards of pet ownership, but also reports that, relative to my non-dog owner friends, I have greater self-esteem, am less lonely, more extraverted, less fearful, less preoccupied, as well as enjoy many other benefits related to psychological well-being.1
So does the research imply that the spending of all this money to take care of Maggie is, in effect, a consumer purchase of psychological and physical benefits? Is the equation for the human simply to buy a pet, feed the pet, and reap the benefits? I don’t think so. And what about Maggie? What does she really want?
In research studies I have conducted among pet owners, they describe their relationships in extremely personal and intimate terms. No surprise to me. Maggie and I have daily rituals that are expressions of the emotional connection between us. Every morning she stares into my eyes while I rub her ears and tell her about my day in a soft and comforting voice. Maggie seems more relaxed, so when I leave for the office she transitions to her day without me with less anxiety. Surely, a mutual exchange has taken place, an interaction that we both benefit from.
Turns out, my experience with Maggie is supported by new research which explores how both human and dog get pleasure from interaction. The source of this pleasure is oxytocin, a hormone known primarily for its role in mother-infant bonding as well as general social attachment. The research shows that oxytocin levels increase, providing pleasure to both humans and dogs when they engage in mutual gazing and touching behavior.2
So while earlier research focused only on benefits to humans, this latest study shows that the benefits are mutual. If Maggie and I get pleasure by staring at one another, how else do we or can we enhance each other’s lives? Does this re-define what most of us believed was the limited potential for human-dog relationships?
To an increasing number of professionals in the fields of cognitive science, psychology, animal behavior, and dog training, the potential has always been far greater. A recent conference of cognitive neuroscientists published a declaration stating “the weight of evidence indicates humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”3 In the non-scientific community there is a long history of animal trainers, dog and horse whisperers, and animal communicators sharing their evidence of communication between species. And then there are the stories of dogs and other pets grieving or performing extraordinary feats to become reunited with their owners.
To further explore these deeper human-animal connections I interviewed Diana Haskell, a New York City based photographer who specializes in capturing the intimate relationships that animals have with the people they love. She has spent a lifetime working with animals and observing their relationships with humans, photographing and writing about them all over the world.
Diana describes seeing these moments of intense connection between human and animal in the instant they step into what she calls a “special zone.” “It happens in a flash, in between lots of distraction, high energy, or even a bit of chaos,” she explains. “My human and animal subjects drop into this still, quiet place where they are relating only to one another. It is very intimate, and, through my lens, both human and animal seem transformed – they appear even more beautiful, with softer expressions than they did seconds before when they were not engaged in this way. The sense of peace and love and strength in these moments is palpable. The exchanges we have with the animals in our lives are unique and rich and have great capacity to not just bring us joy but to teach us about ourselves and how we show up in the world.”
On this day, Diana also aimed the camera at me and Maggie. Facing each other on a park bench, sometime in-between the asking for treats, the squirming about and the feigned disinterest in the camera, Maggie and I tuned in and we began to have our usual “conversation” - and I could hear the shutter clicking. In this image, I don’t see Maggie asking for organic biscuits or any of the other things I buy her. In her eyes I see love for me. And maybe that’s what Maggie wants most of all.
1Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 2011, Vol. 101 no. 6 pp. 1239-1252.
2Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds, Science: 17 April 2015, Vol. 348 no. 6232 pp. 333-336.
3The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf
Photographs: © 2015 Diana Haskell Photography. Used with permission.