April 15, 2024

The Internet’s ‘Dog Mom’ Talks About the Science of the Human-Dog Bond

If you spend much time in the dog-loving corners of the Internet, you’ve probably heard of Jen Golbeck, or at least seen her dogs.

As a computer scientist at the University of Maryland who studies social media, Golbeck wanted to create a space on these platforms that seemed like a respite from the widespread anger she had witnessed across the political spectrum after the 2016 presidential election. Every day during For the past seven years, she and her husband have shared photos and videos of the “golden ratio”—his ridiculous name for his pack of golden retrievers—with the world. The dogs dance in anticipation of their plates of food, swim in the ocean behind their home in the Florida Keys and fight with each other. Golbeck hoped this window into his dog-filled world would be a comforting place for others.

Golbeck’s many dogs (the current list includes Venkman, Feta, Guacamole, Remoulade and Chief Brody) have enriched her life, accompanying her on runs and comforting her during stressful times. She has also shown him love in return, especially after they get older or when they have been sick. These experiences, along with her academic training in information studies, made her want to delve deeper into the science of the human-dog bond, something she discusses in her new book. The Purest Bond: Understanding the Human-Canine Connectionwritten with science writer Stacey Colino. American scientist He spoke with Golbeck about the book and the bonds he has shared with his own dogs.

Credit: Jen Goldbeck

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

One of my favorite moments in the book is when you describe yourself facing difficult days by lying on the floor and enveloped “in a cloud of golden retrievers.” It sounds like heaven. How did you come to realize the power of the bond between you and your pups?

We opened the book with me in high school. I was bullied. Everything in life sucked. He was also very depressed, on the verge of suicide. I was going through a very difficult time and my parents realized something was wrong. But they didn’t put me in therapy. They bought me a golden retriever puppy (his name was Major) and it turned out to be a totally right decision. (I ended up in therapy later, which was great. Don’t skip therapy.) I call him “my suicide prevention dog,” that’s how he lives in my heart. He was everything he needed at that moment: he didn’t judge me and he wanted to be with me. He was the only entity in the universe that I didn’t feel uncomfortable around. I could trust him. He gave me this place to get away from all those other problems and feel like I was important and worth it.

I used to love dogs, but he was the first one who opened my eyes to the real power that relationship can have, that it can be truly transformative. Fast forward a lot of time: we rescue golden retrievers with special needs; We currently have five of them. We serve seniors, palliative care cases, and people with complicated medical needs. It is very rewarding. We get to see them transform from these really sick and broken dogs into happy, joyful dogs that appreciate this warm, gentle life.

The book delves into the science of how we relate to our dogs. Can you talk to us about some of the physiological impacts that dogs can have on us?

If you look at any part of your [health]—physical, mental, psychological and social—your dogs will improve all of that. The science is really strong there.

There was a great study that we cited in the book that talks about if you have a heart attack, [are less likely to die within a year after] if you have a dog than if you don’t have a dog. And you can say, “Well, yeah, if you have a dog, you’ll walk more, right?” But even if you control for the amount of walking, people who have dogs live longer. So this was a real question: if physical activity is not the cause, why does our physical health improve by having dogs?

If we look at all of these different studies, one of the themes that emerges is something that we already knew from psychology: if you have a strong social support system, you have a supportive family, and you have a great family. Social network of friends and people who care about you: Your health indicators tend to be better. That social support is essential for your physical health, not just your psychological health.

It turns out that dogs can serve as social support systems in our lives just as well as people. [in some ways]. There are some studies that delve into the statistics on this and find that the physical benefits of having a dog are greater for people who have smaller social networks. So, for example, older adults who maybe have lost a spouse, their social circle is smaller, they’re dealing with loneliness, and they’re seeing these really dramatic increases in the benefits of dog ownership.

Did you have any favorite pieces of research that you found while writing the book?

When I was in high school, I had a science teacher who told us that dogs didn’t really love us, that if they licked us it was because we were salty. And I remember being very angry, but I was also 12 years old, so I had no ability to talk back. Now I have written a book to avenge that memory.

The science is so clear that dogs love us too. We know from psychology about this thing called attachment bonds and that the ones we form with our [primary caregiver early on can] continue to influence our relationships for the rest of our lives. One of the ways researchers have studied attachment bonds is by subjecting babies to functional MRIs. [functional magnetic resonance imaging] machines, which show the parts of your brain that [have increased blood flow] when you think about different things. When researchers let babies see their mother, a certain part of their brain lights up that doesn’t light up around family friends or people they don’t know as well. So we know that that part of the brain is responsible for the attachment bond. That’s where it manifests itself, neurologically.

The researchers have carried out this study with dogs. They trained dogs to stay really still in an fMRI (which is amazing in itself) and then had the dogs’ human come closer so they could see and smell the person. And the same part of the dogs’ brain lit up when they saw their human as babies did when they saw their mother. So what we know is that on a neurological level, dogs have the same kind of love response when they see us as babies do when they see their mom.

That’s not the only study showing that we have real biological evidence that our dogs love us too. We can measure it in hormonal levels; For example, when we pet and interact with our dog, we get this surge of oxytocin. But dogs also feel that impulse when we pet them or look into their eyes. I love how this really classic science of love and connection is perfectly displayed in dogs.

Are there any misconceptions people may have about dogs and how we interact with them that you would particularly like to dispel?

When I tell people I have five golden retrievers, they often ask me, “Which one is the alpha?” If I feel nice, I will say that I am. And if I’m not feeling nice, I’ll lecture them that the science of hierarchy has been completely discredited. Originally there were studies that said, “Oh, there’s the alpha; there is a beta; There is a kind of aggression to keep us in line.” But it was these really contrived studies of dogs in these captive, loveless environments that were studied in a very ungentle way. And the side effect of that environment was that they ended up establishing this hierarchy to survive these kinds of torturous situations.

Dogs are very social creatures. They live in families. So if you think about a human family, is there an alpha there? I mean, maybe there is someone who is a little more in charge and there are different personalities, but they all live together. And that’s really what dogs want too. If you try to adopt this kind of aggressive attitude: “I am the alpha; you will do what I tell you; immobilize them,” dogs are smart and will respond to that. But they want to have respectful, kind and affectionate relationships.

Is there anything you want people thinking about getting a dog to take away from the book?

[Colino and I] I talked about making a PowerPoint to go with the book for people who are trying to convince their family members to get a dog. If you are thinking about getting the dog and need proof, that is exactly what this book is about.

Our main audience is probably people who already have dogs. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that’s going to be momentous for them; what you’re really going to find is recognition of much of your own experience with dogs and all this rigorous science behind it. Hopefully, it will give you some new insights into the things you’re feeling and you’ll discover some new things about how deep that relationship is.

One of the takeaways I’ve heard a lot of people say is “I felt very validated,” because sometimes people treat us like we’re a little crazy for loving dogs as much as we do. This book will give you all the scientific evidence that you are not crazy. You’re not making it up. All of this is real and deep.

IF YOU NEED HELP

If you or someone you know is struggling or having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call or text 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to 988 or use the online service Lifeline Chat.

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