When the world turned inward, we all assumed there was one family member who was making out like a bandit: the dog. In fact, a recent survey from Banfield Pet Hospital revealed that 45 percent of pet owners believe their household’s happiness has increased while spending more time with their pet during quarantine. There’s no doubt how we humans are feeling, but what about our dogs? Is Elmer really happier now that we’re home all the time? We spoke to several canine experts to find out what’s actually going on in your dog’s brain as you isolate together.
Your dog gets a “happy neurohormone” boost
Dr. Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and instructor of Dog Cognition and Emotion says, “Dogs are pretty much the clear winners during quarantine.” Oxytocin, a neurohormone in both dogs and humans—also known as the “love hormone”—increases over feelings of bonding and pleasure. So, when dogs and their owners make eye contact (which is probably happening a lot more when everyone is home), “it’s kind of like we are hugging each other with our eyes." Huh, that is exactly what it’s like to have a dog, isn’t it?
The region of their brain that prevents depression is stimulated
But there’s more than that huggy-feely stuff. Just being there with our dogs really does rouse their brains. Claudine Sievert, DVM, and veterinary consultant at CatPet.club (the irony…) informs us that constant contact and communication with an owner stimulates a number of centers in a dog's brain more intensely than ever before. “The scent of an owner activates caudate nucleus—a region of a dog's brain that is responsible for motivation, reward and positive expectations.” Why is this important? Well, this helps a dog prevent depression.
And it even helps your dog’s brain develop
“Following the owners’ gaze, emotional expressions and gestures activate superior temporal gyrus in a dog's brain,” Sievert expands. “This area is responsible for dynamic face recognition. And listening to an owner's speech activates the parietal-temporal cortex.” These factors are particularly essential for brain development in puppies. “Stimulated puppies will grow larger brains with more ganglia (brain cells),” says Sievert. Huh? Basically, Sievert is saying that puppies that have more time with their owners are more likely to grow smarter and be more emotionally balanced.
But big changes could make your dog anxious
As social isolation has upended your normal schedule, it’s also affected Elmer’s. Think about it: Sure, you love working from home once in a while. But now that you’re forced to do it every day, it can feel like too much of a good thing. Behavior research scientist and Chief Veterinary Officer at Purina, Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, points out that your pup probably had a nice little routine while you were gone—and we’re guessing it included some quiet, long naps. “Now,” says Dr. McGowan, “The hustle and bustle of having people home all day is likely disrupting your dog’s routine. Depending on your dog’s personality, he might be having difficulty adjusting to this new normal and may even be acting out a bit.” Dogs can develop anxious behaviors when there are changes to their environments, even if it’s just spending more time with you. (Don’t take it personally.)
“Any change in a dog’s routine can lead to stress,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pup Life Today. In fact, according to Dr. Coates, a 2019 study from Behavioural Processes supports the idea that chronic stress can lead to changes in the functionality of a dog’s brain—dogs living under more stressful conditions were shown to be more “ambidextrous” than those living under less stressful conditions. “Being able to use left and right front paw equally well is related to the right and left cerebral hemispheres of the brain working in more similar manners,” Dr. Coates explains.
In the practical sense, however, Dr. Coates says while you may not notice those types of changes, you may notice your dog becoming clingy or looking to you for comfort. Some, on the other hand, may become withdrawn. Per Dr. Coates, extreme cases of stress may lead to stereotypies (abnormal repetitive behaviors) like spinning, pacing, jumping, excessive barking, self-licking and self-biting are examples of stereotypies. If you notice any of these behaviors, “Don’t soothe or punish your dog in the moment, but increase the amount of attention, exercise, and mental stimulation they get when they are calm,” instructs Dr. Coates. And if things get concerning, speak to your vet.
Remember: your stress can stress your dog out
Your mental health affects your dog’s mental health. Per Dr. Shelly Ferris, Regional Director of Petco Veterinary Services: “Studies reveal pet parents who show signs of stress or anxiety can pass those feelings to their dogs, which in turn, could lead to discomfort for the pet. This is why it’s so important for pet parents to remember to prioritize their own emotional and physical health as well.” Aka put on your oxygen mask first. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your four-legged family member.
At the end of the day, you and your dog are emotionally and physiologically bonded
Oxytocin—the love hormone—is no joke. So, use this time to form an even stronger bond with your pet. And while, yes, there is a lot going on in your dog’s brain as you stay home all day together, it’s important to adapt to this new normal together: exercise together and relax together (or alone at the same time). Most importantly: Establish a routine. “Because changes in environment or daily routine are external stressors, which can often trigger anxious behaviors in dogs, it is best to get your pet back into a consistent, predictable routine,” advises Dr. McGowan. Why is this important? Well, following a consistent schedule allows your dog to predict what will happen next which reduces stress. Bring on the eye hugs.