After A Death, Should We Get A Dog? Brain Study Signals ‘Yes’

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

Let’s be clear: I need a dog like a hole in the head.

I’m a recently widowed working mother with a small house, no trust fund and two extremely active young daughters: if it’s Thursday, it must be rock-climbing, piano and Taekwondo before track practice across town. You get the picture.

Still, lately I’ve been thinking the unthinkable: a Maltipoo, Goldendoodle or some other ridiculously named, hypoallergenic, low-maintenance (does that exist?), cute-as hell puppy for my daughters — and for me — to love.

I know full well this is a risky prospect. “There is no rational reason to get a dog,” says my Basset Hound-owner friend. “They are work, expense and add to the list of beings in your home who have needs to be attended to. It is sort of like deciding to have a kid — no rational reason to do that either but big pay off on love, general hilarity and a constant reminder of the joy in everyday small things.” Or, as another friend put it: “What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

“What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

– A dog-loving friend

It’s that truly profound, but tricky to pinpoint, human-pet bond that drives Lori Palley’s research. She’s assistant director of veterinary services at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Comparative Medicine and has recently become fascinated by why people’s relationships with their dogs can be so very significant.

Her latest research, published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, involved scanning the brains of mothers while they were looking at images of their own children and their dogs. Surprise: similar areas of the brain were activated — regions involved in emotion and reward — whether it was the kids or dogs on view.

It was a small study using fMRI: only 14 mothers (dog owners) who had at least one young child. And in case you jump to some conclusion about moms loving their dogs as much as, or more than, their kids, wait: the research also found that in other areas of the brain involved in attachment and bonding, the mother’s brains were more activated when viewing their children.

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. Source: PLOS ONE: "Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. (Source: PLOS ONE: “Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study”)

From the paper:

There was a common network of brain regions involved in emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social cognition when mothers viewed images of both their child and dog. Viewing images of their child resulted in brain activity in the midbrain (ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra involved in reward/affiliation), while a more posterior cortical brain activation pattern involving fusiform gyrus (visual processing of faces and social cognition) characterized a mother’s response to her dog. Mothers also rated images of their child and dog as eliciting similar levels of excitement (arousal) and pleasantness (valence)…

Though obviously not definitive, the work does seem to suggest this thing we have with dogs goes deep. It’s that bright feeling you get watching vulnerable adults or children playing with animals. Dogs, Palley says, “can ease the seriousness of the situation.”

She should know. Palley first came to MGH to study the fundamental neuroscience behind the human-pet bond after her own late father, who suffered from Parkinson’s, began to decline both physically and cognitively. At his long-term care institution, she saw what a profoundly positive impact dogs can have on the sick and infirm. Wheelchair bound, and fogged by the onset of dementia, her dad looked forward to visits from an in-house female golden retriever several times a week.

“One of the first things he’d ask in the morning was to see the dog,” Palley said. “Seeing them interact was so great…[particularly] for a man who had succumbed to the physical and mobility deficits of Parkinson’s. Interacting with that dog put a smile on his face. He talked to the dog…it’s what got him out of bed in the morning in a very trying time; it was a physical struggle, but playing with the dog got his hands working. It was a bright point of his day.”

Palley’s story made me feel warm and big-hearted and game to get a puppy ASAP. But I’m not naive and am acutely aware of the massive downsides. First: I’m not really a dog person. I don’t like their smell, their poop or the travel constraints they impose on a family. I’m not excited about the inevitable battles over who handles the 6 a.m. walk, nor am I psyched about the cost of training, the general loss of freedom and the weird way dogs can monopolize a household and seriously degrade adult conversation. Admission: I’m the one who makes fun of pet-obsessed grownups who treat their animals like children.

Also, certain family members have begged me not to get a dog now — while we are still grieving and have our hands full in so many big and small ways, from vast emotional repairs to car payments.

One well-meaning relative, herself a serious dog person, has practically gone down on her knees asking that I refrain from making this purchase. She says I’m still “fragile” (correct) and tend to be “skittish” around animals (true). She, rightly, says a dog would add truckloads more stress to my already stressed world, and has suggested alternatives; kittens, perhaps, or a bird. She even sent me this video on green-cheeked conure Parrots as excellent pets:

My daughter watched the video. Her reaction: When are we getting the dog?

And who could blame her: She wants cuddleability, responsiveness; she wants the unconditional love she’s lost. “We need another life in the house,” she says.

Plus, there are lots more research-backed upsides:

Dogs, according to one study, can boost your self esteem; and make teenagers more compassionate.

And, of course, animals are used effectively for therapy and to promote physical activity as we age.

Even the American Heart Association last year issued a statement declaring that pet ownership may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.:

Overall, pet ownership of any kind tended to be independently associated with survival. Dog ownership was strongly associated with decreased mortality, with the likelihood of mortality being 4.05 times greater for dog nonowners than for dog owners; the benefit of dog ownership on survival was independent of physiological measures or the severity of CVD.

In the coming years, Palley says, she hopes her work might shed light on what, precisely, happens in the brain when we engage with our pets and why this relationship might be so beneficial. She writes:

Understanding the fundamental neuroscience of this relationship, especially in comparison to a well studied significant relationship such as the maternal-child bond, may shed some light on the human health connection and perhaps, for whom a dog interaction or ownership might be beneficial…

Further, understanding the biological basis for why dogs and people relate so well together and how well dogs fit into our families, may have profound implications in the field of social and affective neuroscience, that is, our understanding of human bonds and their disorders (e.g. autism, schizophrenia) as well as potential human-animal therapeutics in these areas.

As for me, I don’t think I need much more convincing. With dog-advocate friends nudging me forward, I researched dogs all summer. I met Jack the Schneagle, a shy but “cuddly loving pup who aims to please,” and Fonzie the “gorgeous baby Maltipoo” from Tennessee. Searching for the perfect dog was exhausting, though, and unbelievably time consuming. Why is there no JDate for puppies, I wondered.

A friend actually did find a kind of doggie Yente: someone you can pay to evaluate whether a dog is well-behaved and suitable for your family. (Though once a suitable dog is found, it’s not even clear I’d qualify as an owner. Apparently, it’s nearly as hard to adopt certain trendy dogs as it is to get into Harvard.)

Still, I think, when spring comes, I may try again. Animals, increasingly, seem to be infiltrating our world. On a recent visit to a friend’s farm, my girls lit up around the goats and horses and played in the hay loft for hours. I heard traces of joy in my older daughter’s voice as she spent a carefree afternoon throwing sticks to Daisy, the 3-year-old Jack Russell terrier. And on the ride home, she and Daisy fell into a deep sleep together, curled limb around limb and breathing, somehow, in sync.

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