Sometimes in the morning, I wake up to my little dog sitting next to me. She is a very well mannered dog and is patient (most of the time) to wait for me to awaken. When I do, it is clear that she wants me to look at her and acknowledge her. Then she is ready to jump off the bed and do her thing.
A recent article in Science magazine explains this phenomenon in terms of a very important neuromodulator in the brains of not only humans but also other mammals, including dogs: oxytocin.
The hormone oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and is stored in the pituitary gland. It is nature’s way of prompting connection with others in a pleasurable experience, probably because connection is vital to survival. The bonding of nursing mothers with infants is affected by this hormone as is the emotional bonding between sexual partners.
Conversely, studies suggest that a deficiency in receptors in the brain for oxytocin may be genetic markers for a lack of ability for empathy and trust, and even aggressive behaviors. Once again, we are reminded of the profound influence of chemistry on human behavior.
Whether or not we care about the physiology of connection, understanding it only underlines the fact that everything in us is meant to work for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well being. Knowing how to activate our body’s own system for feeling good can make the difference in the quality of our lives. We “always knew” we felt better when we hug one another, and now science is saying that we were right in knowing that our dogs are our best friends as well.