Health & Family

We love our dogs: Study shows bond is same as with kids

Sara Brinson, left, looks at her dog Honey, while Sorrel Brinson, right plays with Honey's leash in Pittsboro, NC on July 6, 2015. A new study shows that some people love their dogs as much as their children.
Sara Brinson, left, looks at her dog Honey, while Sorrel Brinson, right plays with Honey's leash in Pittsboro, NC on July 6, 2015. A new study shows that some people love their dogs as much as their children. atricoli@newsobserver.com

A portrait of a dog hangs above freelance Web developer Michael Hayes’ desk in his little house in Bynum. The dog is a brindle pit bull terrier with a white chest. His name was Eko and in the picture he’s standing in a field – mouth open, tongue lolling out – and he looks happy. Hayes, an amateur wildlife photographer, took the shot in nearby Chatham County pastureland.

The dog is gone, but has not been for long, and Hayes is heartbroken.

The science of love

The human/dog bond, after all, is a strong one, relying on chemical pathways similar to those of human relationships.

By studying concentrations of the hormone oxytocin, a Japanese research team led by Azabu University’s Miho Nagasawa found dogs and their owners bond in much the same way humans bond with family members, including their children. (They published their findings in the journal Science in April.) Evan MacLean, co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, wrote a commentary on their research in the same issue. His work is similar: exploring the remarkable bond between humans and dogs. Though other creatures – like primates – are more closely related, they don’t get us like dogs do.

“We’re so distantly related to dogs, but they have these human-like features,” Maclean said. “There are aspects of dog psychology that are very similar to what we see in young human children in ways that are totally different from other species we’ve studied.”

Surprisingly, chimpanzees are among these animals. One example Maclean gives is pointing: chimpanzees – Homo sapiens’ closest relatives – don’t use or understand this gesture, but dogs do. Even young puppies, Maclean said, show an inborn understanding for how humans communicate.

“Chimps are just abysmal at those things, but dogs are not,” he said.

‘That feeling is the same’

“One of the things I hear people without kids say over and over is, ‘I talk to babies like I talk to my dog,’” Sara Noffsinger Brinson of Pittsboro said. “I think that’s backwards. I think they’re actually talking to their pets like they would talk to a baby.”

She and husband Adam have a full house – three kids, two dogs, six cats, two rabbits, 18 or so chickens and a pond full of tadpoles. A third dog, Lily, whom Brinson had for 15 years, died in January.

“I’ve always had a strong nurturing side, and I’ve been drawn to animals my whole life,” Brinson said. She’s bonded with many animals, but she wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the bond when her oldest child, Buck, was born. Yet she can recognize these are different expressions of the same basic emotion.

“While I think there can be a difference in the intensity or maybe the complexity of what you feel, that feeling – that sweet, gentle throb of the heart, what science can measure in terms of oxytocin output but what most people describe as love – when you have a connection with someone, human or dog, that feeling is the same,” she said.

Part of the family

When we interviewed Hayes on June 18, Eko was still alive. He lounged on the floor while fawn pit Poca – short for Pocahontas, a name she came with – demanded attention by dropping her big, blocky head into laps and then worming half her body up, as if she could be held and cradled like a baby.

“She’s pretty good with her human psychology,” Hayes said with a laugh as Poca circled back, seeking a sympathetic hand to pet her. “I think they read us a lot better than other people can. Maybe part of that is living with you and really knowing you.”

Hayes, who lived next door to the Brinsons before his move to Bynum, has had dogs all his life. The first he bonded with was a black lab named Darth Vader – so named because the original “Star Wars” movies came out about that time. Vader was a family pet, but also a capable retriever who went duck hunting with Hayes’ dad.

“The doghouse was our house,” Hayes said. “They were definitely integrated family members.”

After college, Hayes got his own dog, a Scottish terrier mix named Maggie. They were together eight years – too short a time, he says. Then came Eko, whom he adopted from an animal shelter six years ago. Three years after that, a friend found Poca running loose in Durham. She was heavily scarred and her ears had been cropped. Hayes agreed to foster her, and ended up keeping her. Today he endures the occasional judgmental glare of people who think he cropped her ears, but it doesn’t stop him from taking her hiking with him.

Love and loss

Yet, it’s a bittersweet relationship: another fact of biology is that our pets’ lifespans are a fraction of our own.

“If things go right, we usually outlive dogs, so I guess that’s kind of one of the harder parts about it,” Hayes said. “If you’re going to have dogs all your life, you’re going to lose dogs all your life.”

The day of the interview, Poca was vibrant and social, but her adoptive brother was notably subdued. Eko had lymphoma, a terminal condition.

“He’s on his last days, basically,” he said on that Thursday, not knowing how soon the end would come: Eko held out until the following Monday morning, when Hayes had to have him put to sleep. “This is something that has been on my mind, big time, trying to figure out what I want to do and what’s best for him.” So Hayes focused on making the remaining time count.

A dogless house feels empty

If researchers like Nagasawa and Maclean have found dogs bond and communicate with us in surprisingly human ways, it makes sense that Hayes would be just as empathetic and open to Eko’s needs as Eko was to his. The last time Hayes lost a dog, it was years before he got another. It always hurts, but it hurts because humans are as prone to love dogs as we are to love each other.

When Hayes got Eko six years ago, it was because a dogless house feels empty, but also because he felt like he was in a stable place and could dedicate enough of his time and attention to his dog. As he explained this, he paused mid-thought.

“That kind of sounds like the way someone would describe wanting to have kids,” he said.

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