Oxytocin the Wonder Drug

I’ve finished Made for Each Other, and do indeed recommend it for people who are interested in animal behavior in general, and specifically the biology behind the relationship we have with domestic animals. It’s primary focus, as the title of this blog suggests, is the power of oxytocin and its role in initiating and maintaining our interest, attraction to and bond with other animals. As an addict of hugging friends and stroking doggy bellies and kitty ears, I loved learning even more about my favorite drug. Our levels of oxytocin double while we are petting our dogs, so I hereby consider lying on the living room floor and rubbing Willie’s belly as “working out.”

The benefits of oxytocin on our health are little short of astounding:

* An enhanced immune system

* A decrease in the perception of pain

* An increase in the speed of healing

* A decrease in the activation of the stress-related HPA circuit, resulting in a lower production of cortisol

* A decrease in the activation of aggressive vasopressin-related behavior

* An enhanced ability to read the facial expressions of others (no kidding!)

There’s more, but you get the idea. Lesson One: Add “pet your dog” to “eat your vegetables” and “get more exercise.” Okay, this is not news to most of us, but if you love learning the biology that explains why so many of us are stupid in love with our dogs, it’s interesting stuff. It also makes me wonder if we can’t administer oxytocin to ameliorate some behavioral problems. Would love to hear from some vets and physiologists on this . . . I’ve read of several research projects in which oxytocin was injected or absorbed through nasal tissue. Of course, oxytocin has many other functions (uterine contractions for one) so maybe long term administration not a good idea? ???

I’ll admit I don’t buy everything the author, Meg Daley Olmert, argues. Her section on the beginning of domestication and the interplay between oxytocin and our relationship with wild animals was a bit of a stretch. There are a few things stated as factual that don’t hold up (“Cows crying tears?” As in, when they’re sad? Hmmm, probably not), but overall it’s a great read IF you want to learn more about the biology behind our relationship with all domestic animals (not just companion animals).

My favorite part of the book is about what’s called “ideomotor action.” You may not have heard that phrase before, but if you have a dog, you know the phenomenon, honest you do. Think about the times that you swear your dog is reading your mind, because he jumped up and ran to the door BEFORE you got up and picked up his leash. Or the times that just thinking about something seemed to cause it to happen. Well, it’s not ouija board crazy: “ideomotor action” describes the fact that long seconds before you consciously decide to do something, say get up off the couch, your brain has begun doing it. fMRI recordings of brain wave activity show activity in motor neurons sometimes as much as seven seconds before an individual is conscious of wanting to get up.

Ever met people so good with animals that they seem to be able to read their minds, just as our dogs sometimes seem to be reading ours? It turns out that long before we consciously think about an action, our brain has talked to the relevant muscles, and the muscles have already been to react. Of course, conscious thoughts have the same effect: just imagining getting off the couch causes the relevant muscles to contract. Brilliant observers, (like our dogs), can probably take note of those changes, miniscule though they may be. (And by the way, this is exactly how Ouija boards are believed to work . . . the subject may have no conscious thoughts of an “answer” but their unconscious has something to say.)

All the more reason to take the old advice of “imagine what you want your dog/horse to do as you ask them to do it.” Magically effective? No . . . my brain would explode if I tried to “imagine” Willie out of herding the cat. But, as one of many factors? Yes yes yes. It definitely deserves our attention, and supports using positive reinforcement in training, since it forces us to concentrate what we do want and not what we don’t. Think about it. I’d love to hear your experiences in this regard.

Meanwhile, back on the farm: It’s warmer now, though that’s not always a good thing. Got freezing rain last night so that the snow is now coated in a layer of ice. If it doesn’t melt before it gets cold again, that layer of ice is hard on just about everyone. Scrapes your and your dog’s legs when you sink into the snow and try to walk through, keeps raptors from feeding on their prey under the snow, etc etc. But it’s pretty warm (30 degrees!), so maybe it’ll all melt before the bitter cold comes back in a few days.

After four days without TV or internet at home, it was lovely to get it back. The snow and ice is finally off the two dishes (in one case, that’s due to Jim and his manly wielding of my hair dryer whilst balancing on the roof).

Best news is Willie and Sushi: things are good. Really good. (Cross paws, knock on wood, pray to goddesses of ethology and learning theory). The program now, most successful of all, is a combination of positive reinforcement and positive punishment: If Willie does anything even close to “stalking” Sushi, he is asked to Sit and Stay for 3-6 seconds. Any time Willie is in the presence of Sushi and does not stalk or focus on her, he gets praise and a food treat. I’m afraid to write much more, lest I curse myself and the entire project, but if it maintains for at least three more weeks, I’ll write more about why I think it’s working (and more importantly, why the other attempts did not.)

Next post is about pets and holidays, or “Where’s the dog? Here comes Aunt Polly!”

Here’s Mr. Will now, frolicking in the snow:


  1. Laurie says

    Concerning ideomotor action: Rupert Sheldrake, in his book, “Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals” makes a good case for telepathy. In his experiments the dogs where unable to see or hear their owners. I would love to know what others have thought of that book as well.

  2. Alexandra says

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Trisha. Domestication of animals and how that relates to our own biology is a very interesting topic, and something I enjoy following from my layperson’s perspective.

  3. Kat says

    Thank you for this explanation of ideomotor action. You’ve solved a mystery for me. I wondered how it was that Ranger learned “when I’m done.” I never taught him what that meant but from almost the first moment he came to live with us I’ve been able to say “when I’m done” to him when he wants a walk or something and I’m half way through my cup of tea or five pages from the end of the book or… and Ranger will settle patiently on the floor but the instant I finish whatever it was he’s on his feet waiting for his walk. Now I understand how it is he can do that and how he learned it. Very cool. Thanks!

  4. Heidi says

    This post warms my heart. I’ve long read about the calming effects that pets have on humans (and have experienced it myself) but know too many people who brush that notion aside. It’s a relief to know that there are biological factors at work. I am curious about the biological responses in our pets when we pet them. I know you’ve written a bit about this but would be interested in learning more. And congrats on Willie and Sushi!

  5. Kerry L. says

    I’m not a trainer by any means but when I’ve been asked how come my dogs behave so well I’ve best explained it by saying I believe they understand my intention. I envision what behavior I want from them and they do their best to comply. Of course, having dogs little ‘baggage’ helps and a pocketful of treats is gravy.

  6. says

    I know there have to be more than ideomotor visual cues involved for at least some dogs, because my Mostly Blind girl is even more attuned to my intent than the two sighted dogs. It’s kind of interesting to speculate what cues she might be using from hearing/smell.

  7. says

    Thank you for this wonderfully interesting post. The information is fascinating. Everyone loves dogs and gets all mushy about them, but it’s good to hear about the science behind the fact that they make us feel good. Your article takes us really far along the path of understanding our dogs. I just read another book that is similar in that it has mesmerizing stories about the things dogs do to heal humans, then gives the science behind how they do it. It was called Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs. Thanks for your article, and the great comments, too.

  8. says

    I am so thrilled to hear that things are going well for you know who. I have been sending ideomotor visual cues (although I am sure I am not the only one) to him all the way from Pennsylvania I’m glad its working. This post is wonderfully fascinating, I can’t wait to read Made for Each Other, it is sitting on my night stand. I am currently reading and very much enjoying The Thinking Dog by Gail Fisher. It is about switching from compulsion-praise or lure-reward training to clicker training. She mentions thinking what you want your dog to do while you are waiting for your dog to do something to click. Although I have always trained using a marker, usually “good boy” or “good girl”, and sometimes using a clicker, I usually get behaviors by luring into position and then rewarding. For the last several days I have been purely clicker training. Not saying anything, just allowing my dogs to think about what they need to do to get me to click. I have been imagining the behaviors I want them to perform. Knowing my dogs are really good at reading my body language and knowing that all dogs, not just mine, are masters at reading even subtle changes, I am still impressed by how quickly my dogs are figuring out what I want them to do with no verbal nor any large motor visual cues. The whole thing is quite interesting. Keep posting, you have beautiful way with words.

  9. says

    Thank you for reviewing the book, it is nice to get a professional’s view. I’m only part way through it so far. I thought it was interesting to read how oxytocin shifts a mother’s interest from self-interest to maternal interest and how strong maternal behavior creates offspring who are better able to cope with stress. One of my dogs who has a hard time dealing with stress had a mother who really didn’t want to be a mother and had to be encouraged to care for her puppies. Behavior issues rarely seem to have simple answers but this certainly seems like it could be a component of my dog’s issues.

  10. LynnSusan says

    This topic just fascinates me, in an unprofessional just a pet-lover sort of way. I think I have already made oxytocin my drug of choice. On a related note, there was recently an article in the New York Times discussing the fitness benefits of walking with a dog as opposed to a human companion. The participants were all residents of assisted living communities. Some walked with a human companion, while others were bussed to an animal shelter where they were assigned a dog to walk. The dog walkers were more consistent in their walking, and their speed in walking increased.

    I couldn’t help thinking that the unknown factor here was the increase in oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.

    And every night, when I go home, and am greeted by my ecstatic dog and cats, I get the benefit of the “gooey-ness” with no risk of overdose!
    Thank you for the recommendation and very interesting discussion— I hope to find Made for Each Other in my Christmas Stocking.

  11. Liz F. says

    My dog Nala makes me want an “ideomotor cloak,” something like an invisibility cloak but not quite so extreme. She is the most observant dog I’ve had (often to my detriment).
    When it comes time to clip her nails, for instance, she knows when I am actually going to clip vs. the daily grooming ritual we do after breakfast each morning.
    In these ‘practice grooming’ sessions, I give her about six yummy treats for remaining still while doing necessary things: briefly looking in her ears and mouth, gently brushing the very long hair on her hindquarters/tail, and of course, touching her paws with my hands and the clippers. She seems to adore the clippers now after almost two years of this, doesn’t mind having her paws handled or nails touched (and squeezed!) with the clippers. However, if I get it in my head that I’m actually going to trim today, she won’t give paw. She’s done. I always end up postponing it, only ever doing one or two nails at a time giving great jackpots of treats for success, and stopping before she’s pushed too far.
    Wish I knew how I give away my intention, or wish the jackpots of treats would soon come to outweigh the fear of the trim.

  12. Barb B says

    Wonderful post! I have always wondered if our animal companions experience mutual Oxytocin benefits when we cuddle with them? My Golden seems to.

  13. Portia says

    Although I didn’t know what it was called, I definitely identified my pre-movement muscle reactions as a cue in my 3 dogs’ sudden enthusiasm for a walk just before I would stand up to get them ready. Here’s something fun: try NOT to give the ideomotor cues and see what happens! Think of anything BUT what you’re planning to do and see if you can fake them out. Again – my initial reason to do this was to assuage my one (male, cat chaser) dog’s over-excitement just before being leashed, but it’s become a bit of a game I play with them now, to see which one figures out my intentions first. :) (usually it’s my golden/shepherd mix, she’s a smart cookie.)

  14. Sue Duffield says

    I was astounded at my feelings for my new-born son. Like being in love only MUCH more intese! Obviously, oxytocin at work. (WHAT a rush!) I can feel the same sort of bond with my pets. One question I have is if the secretion of oxytocin is different between males and females of our species. Is this addressed in the book? One could certainly see the evolutionary advantage to having a closely focused and bonded mother. Yet, one can also see the advantage of the father bonding to offspring in the same way. Men are less “touchy-feelie.” Is this because they don’t know to seek the oxytocin rush? Do men who have dogs that they train learn to seek this “high?” Do fathers who are deeply involved with their offspring get the same feeling? I notice my husband, who was a bachelor for most of his first 56 years, often initiates physical contact with the dogs. He has never had kids. But you can see a father-like response to the pets. I would love to see a study comparing oxytocin secretion of men and women.

    I have been fascinated at your project with Will and kitty-herding. Sounds like it’s really working! My latest attempt at dog training has yeilded questionable results. I recently rescued a (Corgi) puppy, who has decided that she REALLY doesn’t like going out in the rain to go potty. (I made a covered area, but she spurns this!) Yesterday I decided to go out with her on a leash into the dog run, and reward results. The first time, she took forever to go pee. The second time, she peed with much more alacrity. Then, this morning, we put the dogs out. The puppy just sat on the porch. When I checked her “pee whiskers,” it became apparent that she hadn’t peed. OK. Got the umbrella, flashlight, and dog treats. Put her on lead and took her out. She immediately squatted and peed. “Good dog!” Treats were distributed. Then quickly pooped. “Good dog!” Treats were distributed. It was only when we were returning to the warmth of the house that I began to wonder who was training who! This morning, she obviously waited patiently until I was out there to “pay” her for going potty. Sigh. Time to review the situation!

  15. says

    I had an instructor who swore by the “imagine your dog doing what you want” thing and never bought it until I finally read the obedience competition rules (the chapter about judging), where it talks about having a mental image of what the ‘perfect performance’ looked like and judging a team against that. I realized that if I took the second or two to think CLEARLY about what I wanted my dog to do and got a clear picture of what *I* needed to be doing to make that happen and was hence better able to train it.

  16. says

    maybe there will come a day when we can order a pump or two in our Lattes 😛

    I love reading “For the Love of a dog” over and over.

    I find it really helpful to understand what goes on in our body to account for why someone may do or say the things they do.

    Same goes with dogs..having an insight to what may possess them internally to do what they do adds another dimension to the relationship and I think enriches it.

    It’s my comfort book that makes some sense of the world. I can’t wait to read this one as well!

  17. Susan Levin says

    I can certainly attest to the physical results of the sudden absence of oxytocin. Three years ago I lost a very beloved dog just a few months after our last cat also died. For the first time in 30-some years I did not have a fur baby in the house. I assuaged my grief and need for fur contact by knitting up all the yarn I had in the house, spun from my dog’s fur. A few weeks later I became aware of a critical lack of something in my head–it truly felt hormonal. I was unhappy and unable to think straight and un-trusting of my judgment. Reminded me of the physical symptoms of a low-thyroid condition. The treatment was a trip to the animal shelter to adopt a kitty; and getting on a puppy list for my next Leonberger dog. My symptoms went away but I will never forget how strongly I was affected by the sudden lack of an animal in my hands.

  18. Erica The Librarian says

    I also enjoyed “Made for Each Other” very much. Reading your post about this book reminded me of Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire.” That book is sort of the gardeners’ equivalent of “Made for Each Other”. It is about the CO-dependancy of domesticated plants and humans — how meeting humans’ needs helps some plant species to dominate the earth. Fun and easy read.

  19. Krystal says

    After reading your new strategy for dealing with the cat-herding behavior, I gave it a try with my 2 German Shepherds who are almost perfect on walks unless we unexpectedly come across a cat roaming the neighborhood when suddenly I am hanging on to their leashes for dear life. So I thought, “Perfect! I’ll try redirecting them by giving them the “sit” command.” Unfortunately, I’ve always used “sit” as the way they say please, so they instantly sat, every muscle quivering, thinking that now when I released them, they had PERMISSION to chase that cat! Back to the drawing board for me!

  20. Rusty says

    I’m way behind schedule reading, just getting to this one a couple weeks later. The comments on oxytocin were exactly what I was looking for. I was hoping to use similar information for a newsletter article I have to write for work. Thanks Tricia. Dogs reading minds? I always say my dog (Sheltie) can read time. 10 minuters before the kids come home from school or my wife comes home from work he goes and waits by the door. Is it 5:30? Well, then it’s time to start reminding the procrastinating humans that the kibble hasn’t been spilled into the dish yet. This is really fascinating stuff, the more I read about it the more I want to.

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