This is an important factor when considering whether or not our dogs actually love us. Many people seem to think the ability to love requires a higher spirituality possessed only by humans. Consider this quote from Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn: "To my mind, true love requires the sort of wisdom and conceptual thinking dogs are simply incapable of." In my opinion, he has it backward. It is the very wisdom of humans that makes love so difficult for us and the relative simplicity of dogs that makes their love so intense.
Unromantic as it may be, a great deal of love is chemical. Dopamine, released during pleasurable activities, causes us to feel an emotion, usually associated with falling in love. Oxytocin is the hormone that maintains those warm feelings as love matures. Oxytocin is what bonds mothers to their children. Patricia McConnell describes it as "a one- size- fits- all hormone mediating love and attachment in all social relationships that involve feelings of care and connection." From a biological standpoint, the entire process is rudimentary and well within the grasp of dogs. Their brains, too, produce the necessary dopamine and oxytocin.
Experiencing great emotion without the ability to cognitively work through it must be extremely stressful for dogs, causing emotions to run amok and creating problems such as separation anxiety. Some researchers, including McConnell, believe that dogs can suffer post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), wherein the memory of an emotionally traumatic event becomes itself traumatic. Those who suffer from PTSD are often hypersensitive to stimuli that are related— in even the most remote manner -- to whatever caused the original trauma. This hyperreactivity stems from changes in stress hormones and in the neural pathways through which the stimulus is processed.
At Canine Assistants, a number of dogs have developed extreme hypersensitivity to noises. The problem usually begins with exposure to a startlingly loud noise, such as fireworks or balloons popping. Once the issue has been established, these dogs can become highly sensitive to even the slightest of sounds. One dog, Hershey, became so stressed by noises that the very click of the joystick on his recipient's wheelchair would send him running under the bed. Luckily, Hershey responded well to a gradual desensitizing program of medication and behavior modification, as do most other dogs.
As any veterinarian can attest, dogs can develop significantstress- related problems. Both people and dogs attempt to alleviate stress in the same manner, using what are known as displacement behaviors in order to cope. Since displacement behaviors in dogs are usually ones that humans consider misbehaviors, the more we know about stress and its effect on dogs, the better we can understand their coping processes.
There are three different categories of stress:
1. Eustress is called positive stress. This is stress you can do something about. If you are excessively hungry, you feel stress. If eating satisfies that hunger, then the stress was eustress. Eustress is positive because it helps keep us alive and encourages success.
2. Neutral stress is neither positive nor negative. The television is somewhat loud, but if it doesn't bother you enough to turn it down, the stress it creates remains neutral.