While many people describe dogs as man’s best friends, Dr. Anna Machin – an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford – has argued at the Cheltenham Science Festival that the relationship between dogs and their owners is even stronger. She said that the bonds many owners form with their pets are as close as that between parents and children.
For instance, in 2014, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has found that mothers’ brains showed a surprisingly similar response when viewing pictures of their babies and their dogs, suggesting that they were experiencing the same type of emotions.
According to one of the study’s authors, Lori Palley, Assistant Director of Veterinary Services at MGH, “levels of neurohormones like oxytocin — which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment — rise after interaction with pets, and new brain-imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting.”
In other words – as Dr. Machin recently put it when describing the findings of this study – “when we look at the brains of humans with their dogs, we see the fingerprint of love and we also see the parenting areas of the brain light up.” However, she admits that there might be a difference in intensity, suggesting that parents “would probably rescue the kid first in a fire.”
According to scans of dogs’ brains, this feeling of love seems to be reciprocated. Moreover, when interacting with humans, dogs have been found to produce beta endorphins – a type of chemicals that play a fundamental role in social bonding, and many of them exhibit strong feelings of loss at the death of their owners.
However, according to Dr. Machin, there are differences between how love is experienced and how it manifests itself in the case of humans versus dogs. “Obviously they don’t have the reflective elements of love, as far as we know, when you dwell upon your relationship, you daydream about your relationship. If dogs daydream, it’s probably about sausages.”