Monday, August 24, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

I recently read an article that said oxytocin levels almost double in people – and in dogs -- when humans talk to and stroke their dog friends. Beta endorphins and dopamine levels supposedly go up, too.

So, in the interest of science, Buddy and I are increasing our efforts to generate those feel-good chemicals. Oxytocin also is believed to be involved in social recognition, bonding and the formation of trust, as well as generosity.

More reasons to love dogs.

I haven’t always been a dog person. Buddy, the 18-pound Lhasa Apso pictured here, was the first dog in my life in over 30 years. He's king of our house now, but apparently that’s OK for the humans who live here, too. According to the article about Meg Daley Olmert’s book “Made for Each Other: The biology of the human-animal bond,” we feel better about ourselves if we have animals in our lives. I'll try to remember that when Buddy wakes me up at 5 a.m. by barking at the wind.

There have been a number of reports this summer that involve dogs and scientific research. My favorites were the studies that found not only are dogs smart, they're smarter than cats.

According to one report, the average dog is at least as smart as a human 2-year-old and can understand up to 250 words and gestures, do basic calculations, and count to 5. The research also shows a dog's social skills are at the teenage level. Having raised two teenagers, I can assure you a dog is far more sociable than a surly teenager who responds in monosyllables.

The research generating the most controversy among cat lovers was conducted by Dr. Britta Osthaus of England's Canterbury Christ Church University. She tested the ability of cats and dogs to retrieve unreachable food from under a plastic screen with three different scenarios: one string with a treat attached, two parallel strings with just one baited and two crossed strings with food attached to only one. All the cats could do the single string test, but none consistently chose the string with the treat when there were two strings to choose from – unlike the dogs. Cat lovers claim the felines just weren't motivated and don't care what people think but dogs are always trying to please humans. (That would come as a surprise to Husband No. 1 who is having a difficult time persuading Buddy to go outside for his evening constitutional as I write this.)

Whether you prefer canines or felines, you probably won't be shocked by the results of an Associated poll that found half of all American pet owners consider their pets as much a part of the family as any other member of the household while another 36 percent say their pet is a member of the family, but not a full member. Most also admit to feeding them human food, nearly half give them human names and a third let them sleep in their bed.

I do give Buddy human food and I suppose his name could be considered human. But I vowed I'd never let a dog sleep in our bed. Don't even try to guess how long that lasted.

But now that I know there are medical benefits from having the dog nearby so I can talk to him and pet him to increase our oxytocin levels, I don't feel quite so guilty about it.

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