“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”—Bern Williams
I will always remember bringing my puppy home for the first time. She was two months old, soft, warm, cuddly…and a lot of work! After two long nights in which she woke me hourly with her little cries, I took her to the vet for her first check-up. Right there in the office, as I nodded off with her in my arms, I was jolted awake by one big sudden wet lick to the cheek! I looked down, and there she was, looking back up at me with those big brown puppy dog eyes. An immediate cascade of affection for her came over me and I forgot all about the fatigue from the nights before.
So just why are those puppy licks so delightful? One answer lies in American sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s foundational work in biophilia, literally meaning “love of life.” Previously used by psychologist Erich Fromm to describe people drawn to life and vitality,1 Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis asserts that humankind has an innate biologically based affinity for other living beings2. Stated otherwise, we are made to seek relationships with other species.
Indeed, the human-animal bond—“the mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both”3—has accounted for much of our ability to survive and thrive. People began to build relationships with horses and cats from about 3,000 B.C. onward; with sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs between 9000 and 7000, B.C. onward; and with fowl from about 2,000 B.C. to the present day.4
One of the clearest examples of the human-animal bond has occurred in the relationships between people and dogs. Dogs are considered to have been domesticated between 12,500 and over 15,000 years ago, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University.5 This span of time has given people and canines ample opportunity to live and work together, shaping a shared evolutionary relationship. Over time, we have adapted to each others’ needs, forging bonds marked by shared communication and affection for which biological and emotional factors are at play. In a recent study, dogs who gazed into the eyes of their human counterparts produced increased levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone people produce as they develop relationships with their newborn babies6. And the longer each dog-person pair gazed into each other’s eyes, the more oxytocin people produced as well! Based on this finding, Brian Hare, Director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, concluded that dogs are “hugging you with their eyes.”7
These “hugs” feel good, and are just one of the many ways in which we and our animals show our kinship. Dogs have been found to help reduce loneliness, provide social support, increase activity level, and offer unconditional love and acceptance. 8, 9, 10 They have been associated with lower blood pressure in humans through shared walks. 11 These reciprocal influences on health and welfare are not limited to those between dogs and people. The presence both of canines and of felines has been correlated with decreased cardiovascular reactivity.12 Horseback riding has provided physical benefits for horses and improved the health and mood of their riders.13 Parrots and war veterans help one another heal from trauma.14 Fish swimming in aquariums have been shown to reduce heart rate, improve mood, and generate and sustain interest.15 Even guinea pigs have helped children to improve their social skills in the classroom! 16 Consistent with the biophilia hypothesis, the biological, social, and emotional pluses for both people and animals living together indicates how innately interwoven this bond is. And it is this deep sustaining relationship that is the basis of our attachment with animals.
To acknowledge our profound connection with animals and assist in the continued development of these significant relationships, EDGE Counseling Solutions now offers services to address a wide range of human-animal bond issues. Individuals, families, veterinary professionals, and animal welfare workers are welcome to call for an appointment or request a consultation to meet your specific needs and those of your animals.
Yes, the human-animal bond in its many meaningful forms is both innate and strong. And to me, the power of human-animal bond is best found right there at my side, looking at me from under furry brows, wagging her tail…hugging me with her eyes…and licking my face.