I’m just back from Denver for the “Animals on the Mind, The Social Neurobiology of Human-Animal Interactions,” Conference. Oxytocin was flowing, in more ways than one. It was there theoretically—in the talks that emphasized its importance in social attachment/feelings of security, along with its increase during human-animal interactions. But it was also there in reality, as we heard about the impressive accomplishments of programs that create uber-healthy interactions, like the Warrior Canine Connection and The Horse Boy Foundation.
I had originally planned to write a short summary of each talk, but that became ridiculous before the end of the first day. Not many people want to read a 15-page blog post. Here then, is a summary of a few of the highlights of the conference, more to come in future posts:
OXYTOCIN, or, Yes, You Might Want to Inhale. It Depends.
Here’s one example of the data-based talks, given by Jesse Frijling, a PhD Candidate at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Amsterdam. We know that oxytocin does all kinds of wonderful things, like decreasing fear responses, while increasing a vast number of generally good things, like social bonding, social interactions, feelings of trust, the recognition of facial expressions, and is seeking social support after stressful events. We also know that oxytocin is released in stressful situations, and acts to dampens distressed reactions by suppressing activity in the amygdala and the production of cortisol. But it does more than that—it also increases what is called social reward functioning, which means, in the simplest of terms, a deficit of it can interfere with feeling happy. No wonder it’s my favorite drug. (It should be noted that anything with the power to do good has the power to do harm: oxytocin also increases feelings of territoriality and a “us/them” perspective.
But it is the good side of oxytocin that motivated Frijling to ask if it might be a helpful treatment for people suffering from PTSD. Given that many of its symptoms are increased fear, a lack of trust, and an inability to feel happy, what if oxytocin was delivered directly as a treatment? Since 1/3 of PTSD victims don’t respond to traditional treatment, she wondered if the direct application of the neurohormone could be used to treat the symptoms of PTSD.
In one of her studies, fMRI’s were used to evaluate responses before and after viewing photos of angry and threatening people in 40 patients with PTSD, and 40 without. All were police officers. She found that sniffing oxytocin reduced the amygdala’s response (a “fear center” in the brain) in PTSD patients, but not in the controls. (If I remember correctly, it actually increased it in the controls.) The PTSD patients also reported feeling less anxious after the oxytocin, but more anxious in the controls. Not only is this study an important step toward treating victims of trauma, but is also a good reminder that nothing is a “magic cure-all.” Probably a good idea to ignore websites that advertise oxytocin as the “love hormone” and suggest that people carry it alongside the condoms in their pocket.
ANIMALS AS OXYTOCIN GENERATORS: The Warrior Canine Connection
Obviously the link between the conference title and the research above is our knowledge that interactions with animals increase our own oxytocin when we interact with them (in the best of all possible ways). It’s also increased, as anyone in the audience at the conference can tell you, when we hear about projects that involve animals in helping victims of severe trauma.
I’m not sure there was as dry eye in the house when Spencer Milo walked onto the stage with his dog after a presentation about the Warrior Canine Connection. Rick Yount and Meg Olmert (author of Made for Each Other) first talked about the project, which enrolls veterans recovering from PTSD and TBI’s as trainers of mobility assistance dogs for veterans with physical disabilities. Besides the obvious benefits of working with stable, healthy dogs, one of the best things about the project is that the veterans are given a purpose—to train dogs to help other veterans. I did a phone interview with Spencer a few years ago, and he stressed how important it was to him, and others in the program, to do something that served his fellow soldiers. He came home feeling helpless and useless, after committing his life to taking care of his men when on duty. WCC not only gave him a way to feel useful again, it allowed him to focus on something beside his own fears. For example, after not wanting to leave his room for eons, he finally had to leave to train his dog to learn to work in city streets. He was so focused on training and conditioning the dog that he forgot about his own fears.
I have heard some controversy abut this project—the “trainer” veterans only work with the dog for a relatively short period of time for example, and have to say goodbye to the dogs after only a few weeks. Meg and Rick were asked about this issue, and explained that most of the veterans doing the training are still in the service and can’t have their own dog at the time. Although it is hard for them to say goodbye to the dog they are working with, the fact that their efforts are going toward helping another veteran makes it worth it.
So much more! Rupert Isaacson, author of The Horse Boy and Director of the Horse Boy Foundation spoke about his efforts to help his severely autistic son. Lots more on that later, it deserves its own blog. As does Richard Louv’s talk (author of Last Child in the Woods, and another excellent speaker). Michael Kaufman from Green Chimneys discussed how important it was to match the animal to the child in the farm program (“Goats have ‘no boundaries.’” Ha! So true.) and some of the work being done at the farm to help children with behavioral challenges learn to function in the world. I’ll be speaking there next spring, and so listened with special interest. I’m very much looking forward to going.
Temple Grandin gave a compelling talk, stressing how important it is for anyone who works with animals to be an observer of small, specific things, because that’s what the animals are noticing. It was all so reminiscent of my training in ethology. I thought one of her most important points was how easy it is for “bad to become normal.” For example, when every pig in a production facility has bad feet and legs, no one noticing anymore. There are so many examples of this in all walks of life, but I do think about dog training methods, in which it was “normal” to threaten dogs with injury if they didn’t do what you said. The good news is that we can change “normal” when we are educated.
Argh! Lots more good talks but no more time today to write about them. I’ll just leave it that the The Institute for Human-Animal Connection hosted the conference, and I suspect that all the participants are more than grateful. The Institute is a center for the study of the interrelationship and health of people, animals and the environment. Check it out, if I could go back in time I think I’d enroll myself.
More to come in the weeks to follow. If you attended, I’d love to hear about your favorite talk, or what you found yourself thinking about most as you made your way home. And if you missed it, the next conference will be held at Green Chimneys, April 28-30, 2017. Hope to see you there…
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Haven’t been back long, but oh, so wonderful to be home this time of year! I was itching to get home and get my hands in the soil and my mouth around the whistle I use to cue Willie and Maggie. I got home Saturday night, and spent most of Sunday digging, pulling, hiking up the hill and working the dogs. Heaven. Except, uh, I can barely move.
I did get my butt out of bed early this morning for another lesson with Gordon Watt. Here’s one of his dogs watching him and another dog shed out a group of sheep for Maggie and I to work. We had a great lesson; if I could I’d work with him every day.
Things in the garden aren’t quite as good. We had a hard frost Saturday night (25 F) and although I covered the annuals, the native perinnials got hit hard, especially the new fronds of my ferns. My maindenhair ferns are one of my favorite plants. and they pretty much got slaughtered. Poor babes, not quite sure if I should cut off the frozen fronds and let the plant start over, or….? All advice welcome.
The tulips were none the worse for wear, although their blooms are just about gone. Here’ are last remaining ones in full bloom–I love the delicate tulip petals contrasted by the old, rusty fence in the background.