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‘Dogs Decoded’: A Greater Bond Than We Ever Imagined

The February program at our kennel club meeting was a viewing of the PBS show, “Dogs Decoded.” Although an avid follower of research surrounding the canine-human bond, I had not seen this program. Now that I have, I want everyone who loves dogs to see it as well.

The show was released in 2010, and many of our readers have undoubtedly seen it. But if you haven’t, for a cost of $19.99, you can order the DVD from PBS. It will make a wonderful monthly program for your local club and a great DVD to share with dog friends. Based on a wide range of research performed worldwide, the program investigates scientific discoveries that help prove that not only are dogs highly intelligent creatures, they also possess a remarkable ability to read and respond to human emotion.

Do we understand what dogs are “saying” more often than we realize? When humans listen to recordings of dogs barking under different circumstances, they can often accurately identify what situation the dog was in. And dogs may understand more of what we’re saying than we realized as well. Take the Border Collie that can recognize more than 300 objects, not only by their spoken names, but also when shown photographs of them.

When her owner says “carrot,” and then sends the black-and-white marvel away by pointing to a doorway or behind a screen, the Collie runs to the appointed area and selects the carrot-shaped toy – and then, over and over again, she retrieves dozens of others by name. When she is shown a photograph of a particular toy, she also accurately retrieves that object. She is able to identify objects at the same level as a human 2-year-old.

Did you know that dogs are more capable of reading human gestures than our closest genetic counterpart, the chimpanzee? Researchers demonstrate that dogs readily interpret and respond correctly to our signals, such as finger pointing, in ways that chimps do not. Even more impressive, dogs also react appropriately to a human glance in one direction or another, an astonishing thing to see played out again and again in the show.

A second utterly fascinating block of research indicates that dogs look at the human face in a completely different way than they look at the face of another animal, or at an inanimate object. Remarkably, the way they respond to the human face mimics how humans look at one another.

Research indicates that dogs look at the human face in the same way that humans gaze at one another. (©Can Stock Photo Inc.)

Research suggests that emotions expressed on the human face are more “faithfully represented” on the right side of the face than the left. Further, studies show that humans have what is called a “natural left-gaze bias,” meaning that when we see another human face, our gaze naturally falls much more often toward our left, that is, to the right-hand side of the face of the person looking at us. So we are naturally drawn to the side where emotion is most strongly displayed.

Prior to the research described in “Dogs Decoded,” it was thought that only humans had this tendency to favor looking left when looking at other humans. But in studies at the University of Lincoln in England, eye-tracking software was used to record where dogs’ eyes went when they were presented with images of other dogs, various inanimate objects and human faces.

Researchers found that when shown pictures of other animals or of inanimate objects, dogs randomly looked sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. But when presented with images of human faces, dogs routinely looked to their left, to the side of the face where human emotions are most strongly reflected.

While most of us won’t be surprised that science can prove a remarkably strong connection between humans and dogs, the studies brought forward in this program are still amazing and delightful for the dog lover.

The Love Hormone

Another compelling part of the program involves research being done at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Professor Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg studies the role of the hormone oxytocin in creating the bond between human mothers and their newborn babies. The role of oxytocin in the human-canine bond is also examined.

In all mammals, oxytocin is released in the mother during labor, stimulating contraction of the uterus so that the fetus can be expelled, and, later, stimulating milk secretion from the mammary glands. In the new mother, oxytocin also leads her to develop a fierce bond with her newborn child.

Oxytocin is released in both men and women during sexual activity, and studies have shown that an increase in oxytocin levels correlates with increased feelings of bonding, closeness and protectiveness among humans. Oxytocin is thus sometimes called the “love hormone.”

Studies show that both dogs and humans secrete the hormone oxytocin when they interact with one another. (©Can Stock Photo Inc.)

What is fascinating is that Professor Uvnäs-Moberg’s work has shown that oxytocin is similarly involved in the creation of the human-canine bond. Blood samples were taken from both dogs and their owners before and at intervals during sessions where owners interacted with their dogs. As Uvnäs-Moberg relates in the show, when people interacted with their dogs over a period of time, “you could see this beautiful peak of oxytocin” from the blood sample analyses.  And not only did the humans’ levels of the hormone increase – the samples taken from the dogs also showed an increase. The bond between dogs and humans does seem to occur at a much deeper level than was once believed.

The more research focuses on dogs, the more we find out that they make an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the world. Every dog lover owes it to himself to see this program. It helps prove what we’ve known all along – that dogs really are among the most remarkable animals on earth. DVDs of the program are available at www.pbs.org.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.