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: