We’ve all heard it before: A dog is a man’s best friend. And if you’re a dog parent, you probably wholeheartedly agree. Dogs never fail to greet us with the best kisses, know exactly how to make us smile when we’re blue, and even take on the role as our trusty bathroom bodyguard. There’s no denying the special bond between man and dog. From acting as star service pets to rescuing our hearts, it’s a unique relationship no human companion could replace. But have you ever stopped and questioned why?
The Science Behind the Human-Animal Bond
Turns out, there’s scientific data that supports why we feel so happy around our precious pals.
“There’s a litany of data that shows that [a] connection with an animal—both human and non-human animal—releases oxytocin, the love hormone,” says Russell Hartstein, a nationally recognized certified dog behaviorist and trainer.
While oxytocin is mainly associated with aiding in childbirth and lactation, research suggests it may also promote social bonding and reduce stress, earning it the nickname the “love hormone.” These stress-reducing benefits run deep. A person’s lifespan has been shown to increase dramatically when they share a home with pets, says Hartstein, who serves as CEO (Canine Executive Officer) of Fun Paw Care in Los Angeles, California. And many people turn to therapy dogs or comfort dogs for emotional support.
But that still begs the question: What makes the dog-human relationship so unique in comparison to a human-human relationship?
“The very definition of love is non-discriminatory, non-judgmental and unconditional,” Hartstein says. “Sometimes people say ‘unconditional love’—which is really redundant. Love is just that—and when one experiences this type of love with another animal, who they are not being judged by, who loves them for all their insecurities, quirks, faults, looks, smells, everything … it forms a very beautiful bond—one that is possibly stronger than with humans.”
More Than Just a Pet
When people learn about all the loving, feel-good benefits pets can bring to their lives, it’s tempting to just run out and adopt one. The relationship between man’s best friend and their caregiver seems simple enough: The caregiver provides food, water and shelter, and receives love in return.
But if you’ve ever had a dog, you already know the relationship is much more complicated than that, and adopting an animal on a whim is the last thing anyone should do.
“Dogs have just as much capacity to have deep and different relationships with other sentient beings,” Hartstein says. “And as a sentient being, they have the same, or nearly identical, neural pathways as humans. Their oxytocin and cortisol levels respond accordingly as with humans.”
Have you ever noticed how your dog might become noticeably more excited when a close friend arrives? Or perhaps they’re on their best behavior around your family? Hartstein explains that dogs are capable of forming unique relationships, so while your fur baby might view you as their devoted parent or caregiver, they also form unique relationships with other humans—just like we do.
“It’s important to remember that we’re not looking at just one side of the equation, because in any relationship it’s essential to always look at both involved,” Hartstein says. “It wouldn’t be fair to just look at the human being and not the other being.”
Adopting a dog is a serious commitment that comes with a responsibility to create an equal relationship, but it’s what makes your unique bond all the more fulfilling.
True Miracle Workers
Outside of the typical dog-caregiver relationship, you can find endless testaments of how dogs bring endless happiness to our lives. They can be trained as service or therapy dogs and can even be trained through prison programs that greatly benefit the rehabilitation of inmates.
We talked with the executive director at Caregiver Volunteers, Lynette Whiteman, who oversees the program, Caregiver Canines, which matches dog parents with those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. She says the program has been a huge success for all parties involved.
For people with dementia, they often face pressure to remember names or to engage in conversation. But when they receive a visit from a therapy dog, it’s a moment of pure, unadulterated joy. No expectations and no judgements.
Benefits for the dogs in the program are equally outstanding. The dogs in the program look forward to the visits. They get so much undivided attention and love, similar to the feeling of going to grandma or grandpa’s house to be spoiled. And since the matches in the program are one-on-one and lasting, it’s a special friendship.
Whiteman has many success stories to recount, and told us about one in particular that will always stand out to her:
“Al was a gentle 86-year-old man who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was being cared for at home by his wife, Grace. Al was a lifelong dog lover, but because he and Grace were older and not in great health, they couldn’t care for one any longer. We matched them with Caregiver Canine Malke for weekly visits. During the first visit, Al bent down to pet Malke and repeated over and over again ‘my baby, my baby.’ When the volunteer looked over at Grace she was crying. It was the first time she had heard Al talk in over six months.”
It’s moments like those that truly drive home just how special our beloved fur babies are to us—leaving us with absolutely no doubt that they truly are “man’s best friend.”
Tell-Tail Signs Your Dog Is Your BFF
- He’s your favorite co-pilot for spontaneous car rides.He never complains about your choice in music, or your karaoke sing-alongs. What more could you ask for?
- When you’re exhausted and just feel like snuggling on the couch, he’s all in.Pizza, Netflix and cuddles—it’s the trifecta for the perfect Friday night. And when nothing on TV catches your fancy, you’re totally down for some cozy reading on the couch together.
- Never has someone’s gross habits been so adorable—and better yet, he also accepts yours.Who ever thought that copious amounts of drool could be so endearing? Not to mention, any of your own habits always go quietly under the radar.
- When you’re down in the dumps, the only consolation you want is from your best friend; your dog best friend, that is.Forget the ice cream and wine—nothing feels as good as venting to the best listener and receiving the best kisses in return.
- You have more pictures of your dog in your camera roll than of yourself.And you frequently share those pictures with friends, co-workers and even random strangers.
- It doesn’t feel like a true vacation without your dog by your side.It just feels like something’s missing.
- And if he can’t come along, daily check-ins and video calls are non-negotiable.
While you’re calling your four-legged pal, why not continue to spoil them, too?
- You have a matching best friend necklace and friendship collar for your dog.
And you both proudly show it off.
- You know all the dog-friendly cafes, restaurants and hot spots like the back of your hand.If he’s not allowed, you’re just not interested.
- He just always gets you.
It’s love like no other.