Valentine’s Day is the most romantic day of the year. It’s the busiest in the florist’s calendar and usually the time when the price of red roses doubles overnight! However, the background to the story isn’t quite as warm and cuddly as we might believe. The legend goes that Valentine was a priest who served the Emperor, Claudius II, in third century Rome. The Emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those who had wives and families and so he prohibited marriage for young men. Valentine thought that this was rather unfair and so he continued to marry young lovers, despite the ban. But when his actions were brought to Claudius’ attention, the Emperor ordered him to be killed.
There’s nothing history likes better than a martyr for love and St Valentine’s story has spawned an enormous worldwide industry for cards, chocolates, flowers and much, much more – all celebrating the apparent anniversary of his death on February 14th.
As humans, much of our lives are dominated by love. Romantic love is fascinating but complex and has been the source of much of the world’s literature, yet we find it hard to explain. We dedicate much of our time attracting, finding and (hopefully) cementing our love for one another, but is our love for our pets – and their love for us – very different?
Despite the attempts of writers and poets, we still find love hard to explain, although, with the help of science, we now know what happens in our brains when we fall in love. There are specific chemicals, such as oxytocin, dopamine and phenethylamine which have been seen to play a part in changes to our behaviour that are associated with love. The term ‘falling in love’ seems misplaced as these substances act rather like stimulants to make us excited and keen to bond. The physical characteristics are similar to those created by the use of chemical stimulants like amphetamine and include light headedness, sweating palms, increased heart rate and increased mental focus with a high degree of positivity.
The US clinician, Dr. Daniel G Amen says, “romantic love and infatuation are not so much an emotion as they are motivational drives that are part of the brain’s reward system.”
Elizabeth Kane, a clinical psychologist who also works in the US, says that, “Romantic love evolves when one feels a sense of interdependence, attachment, and that their psychological needs are being met.”
Clearly, when it comes to love, we all have a need – both emotional and clinical – for the reward mechanism that is associated with unconditional love. All of us who have owned a pet know that the love our pets give us is similar to the unconditional love humans display with their offspring and most of us recognise that our relationship with our pets is far less complicated than that which we enjoy with fellow humans. Whether it is the exuberant greeting that my dog will demonstrate, despite not having seen me for all of five minutes when I went out to the shed, or that moment when the family dog licks a child’s hand in solidarity when the child has been told off, any change in our actions or demeanour is rapidly noted and picked up as part of a remarkable bond between humans and dogs. Cats, too, possess a similar capacity for responsive reinforcement despite their altogether more independent nature.
We know that when a mother gazes on a newborn child, the hormone oxytocin is released in both the mother and the infant and oxytocin is known as ‘the socially bonding hormone’. Bonding is a complex arrangement that reflects not just dependence but also fear/protection, anxiety, interdependence and the sheer pleasure to be gained from association with the two partners. Dogs are the only animal that will run to a human for protection (as my seven-month-old Springer puppy does when she sees a wheelie bin) and are also the only animal that actively seeks eye contact with humans and reads those signals to attenuate its behaviour.
Humans have, over centuries, trained dogs to reflect their own needs and to share in their work whether it is in rearing and managing livestock, guarding behaviours, or in search and rescue, but that working bond has also developed into something far more emotionally rewarding and lasting between the species.
Dogs have a unique ability to determine how we are feeling both from visual cues picked up from our behaviours and from their neural responses to the smell of people – both known and unknown. We still know rather little about how the wonderful olfactory senses of dogs actually translate into their behaviour, but we do know that the smell of a dog’s owner actually sparks off a neurochemical process through the reward centre in the dog’s brain which we have identified as the caudate nucleus. We also know that certain sounds, associated with positive responses from humans, also spark off positive reactions in the auditory cortex of both species which means that dogs have learned to take pleasure from things that please their ‘special’ humans and to offer comfort and reassurance when they perceive their need.
There are textbooks that would fill a library on the human-canine bond covering not just the clinical understanding of the neurochemical process but the applied benefits of human’s association with pets which have resulted in lowered stress and other physiological changes such as reduced blood pressure and lowered heart rate. Our individual preferences for the way our dogs look and behave are as complex and varied as those which we exhibit for finding our own human mates but one thing is certain, nothing comes as close to our feelings of love, dependency, protection and comfort that we exhibit in our relationships with our own young as those remarkably similar feelings when we are bonding with a dog or cat.
As Marie Carter, editor of Pets Magazine, writes “People aren’t trying to turn their pets into little humans. They are, instead, seeing companion animals increasingly as loving, sentient creatures that, as even science has proven, truly love us.”