The Positive Effects of Endogenous Oxytocin When Prompted in New Social Settings On Companion Canines by Valeri Stallings (Research Paper)
In the early 1900’s Oxytocin was discovered as a hormone in which the primary function was to speed up and exacerbate labor and delivery in women. Over the past several decades, Oxytocin has been a research topic of discussion for its function for memory, emotional and social enhancement functions. The functionality of this hormone is not limited to people, but all mammals. Only a handful of studies have been done on other species but the Canine familiaris, (family dog), has been a secondary target for the study of oxytocin. Oxytocin appears to be a social facilitator for dogs as well as people. Oxytocin allows us and dogs to socialize with ease after either an exogenous or endogenous dose of Oxytocin enhancement or administration. As the companionship factor grows amongst people, their drive to socialize them grows as well. Oxytocin seems to play a role in successful social activity events. Understanding how hormones effects our dogs actions, can facilitate a more comfortable and adaptable introduction to sociability scenarios.
Oxytocin is a non a peptide hormone found in mammals best known for its role in lactation and parturation as discovered in 1906. The words Oxytocin in greek mean “quick birth”. The letters OT seem to be used commonly in articles as the abbreviation for Oxytocin. OT will replace the full word Oxytocin in this research document as well.
OT is composed of nine amino acids. It is similar to the hormone vasopressin. OT has one receptor. There is a synthetic version of OT that was synthesized in 1953 and it is called Pitocin. Pitocin is used for induction of labor primarily. OT is synthesized in the hypothalamus and transported to the posterior pituitary where it is released to regulate parturation but some of the OT is dispersed to the Amygdala for release within the brain. The Amydala is a portion of the brain in the cerebral hemisphere responsible for memory and emotions.
The distribution process of OT has been examined using receptor autoradiography. This is a technique that indicates where the receptor is transported after synthesis. Oxytocin is shown to be distributed widely through out the brain. (2009, Lee). Other ways that OT levels can be measured is blood and urine samples.
Over the past several decades, researchers have started to focus on what other functions OT has on the brain besides maternal affects. Besides promoting lactation and assisting in a speedy birth, OT plays a role in non-social functions such as learning, anxiety, feeding and pain as well. But for the purpose of this paper, we will focus on its function as a social facilitator, promoting bonding and trust primarily in dogs. Domestic companion canines, that people acquire as pets, activity partners, family members with fur, assistance animals and therapy dogs. (Canine familaris).
OT half life is very short in the blood stream and is measured at approximately 3 to 9 mins. This is one of the reasons testing for effects of OT levels and their effects from certain stimuli and creating a certain calming social mood is challenging to measure (2014, Churchland). Besides OT being a primary hormone within the body itself, synthetic forms of OT have been manufactured. These synthetic forms are used in hospitals primarily to induce labor and intensify contractions, but most recently it can be purchased on line and with a prescription as a mood altering enhancement drug. If humans inhale synthetic OT we become more trusting, cooperative and generous (2014, Morell). The exogenous use of OT, are synthetic versions that come in the form of intravenous, or injection form, but primarily a nasal spray form are being used and tested to facilitate social enhancement functions. Exogenous OT can also be external stimulating factors such as touch or voice or anything that could create an association. Endogenous forms of OT is the natural form that is formed within the body. Particularly the hypothalamus.
The organization called ‘Autism speaks’ provides an article on line that supports a clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of OT nasal spray in children and teens with autism. This study promotes the effects of OT nasal spray playing a critical role in sociability and affiliation. The tests done in this pilot study was conducted amongst 25 children with autism and the test results concluded that the children that received the OT nasal spray showed great improvement in social behaviors (Tarkan, 2015).
There is a similar correlation that has been noted between autistic children and dogs pertaining to the use of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). This similarity in teaching children with autism is the use of ABA as a training tool as well as a form of behavior modification and training methods for dogs. If the correlation of the appropriation of this technique between these two, (being humans and canines), is effective, then the genetic brain configuration may be very similar and this would support the P+ effects of OT on dogs as the current studies of OT are proven to be therapeutic for autistic children, especially in the social enhancement arena.
The below diagram presents a simple cycle of life in which certain points OT may affect behaviors and physiology of species.
This leads to the question….If it is known how oxytocin effects humans, how does OT affect dogs. Humans and canines are both mammals. Do we both respond to OT in the same manner? There was a recent new brain imaging study that compares human to dog brains, done in 2014 that reveals striking similarities between humans and dogs, primarily with the process of voice and emotion. The study reveals that dog brains are very similar to human brains and they appear to process and possess brain systems that are devoted to making sense of vocal sounds and are sensitive to the emotional content (2014, Kein).
OT is a neuropeptide synthesized in the hypothalamus in mammals. It regulates many complex forms of social behavior on in both human and non human animals. A study conducted by a group of researchers provides behavioral evidence that exogenous OT promotes P+ social behaviors in the domestic dog toward not only con specifics but also human partners. When sprayed with OT, dogs showed higher levels of orientation and affiliation towards their owners and higher affiliation and approach behaviors towards dog partners then when sprayed with a placebo. Additionally the exchange of socio P+ behaviors with dog partners triggered the release of endogenous Oxytocin highlighting the involvement of OT in the development of social relationships in the domestic dog. This data provides information that supports the hypothesis that OT facilitates the maintenance of close social bonds beyond immediate reproductive or genetic ties and identifies OT as one of the neuro chemicals of sociality in mammalian species. Correlation studies have shown that positive interactions with social partners are associated with changes in peripheral OT in dogs (Canis Familiaris). Understanding the mechanism that facilitate the formations of social bonding will help us to understand the evolution of the biological basis of cooperation as well as variables in social skills in many species. Domestic dogs are an excellent choice of a mammal to study because of the strong bonds they form not only with con specifics, but with humans (2014, Romero). Scientists have shown that it’s a key chemical in the formation of bonds between many mammelian species.
In a scientific study in Japan, 16 dogs and their parents participated. 8 of the dogs were given a whiff of OT, the other a placebo. The OT induced dogs showed an increased response of pawing, licking, sniffing and nudging at their people. The dogs were also found to be friendlier to their dog pals. The bottom line for this experiment it is no longer just a reproductive hormone. The roles of OT now include benefits of assisting in forming and maintaining relationships (2014, Morell) .
Another Oxytocin study shows that after receiving a dose of exogenous OT dogs form more P+ expectations about ambivalent stimuli. After being given a dose of OT nasal spray, dogs were more willing to participate and interact with other friendly unknown dogs in unfamiliar environments.
Why it is important for us to know how OT effects dogs.
One of the hypothesis that I would like to see become a theory, is that through P+ reinforcement, and helping to form P+ associations with new environments such as a doggie daycares, dog parks, assisted therapy dog programs, and other so called social environments for dogs, will stimulate an OT response and allow for a transition to sociability. These environments we take our social dogs to that cause a heightened arousability and increased threshold and stress levels, that create risks for potential altercations, could be pre imposed and promote a social climate through calm happy voices and supportive touch to promote and induce a production and release of OT. The use of these tools could better facilitate a calming effect and promote social bonding. This study provides information that the impact of OT on dogs judgment bias and also shows that the social communicative nature of the task situation modulates the effect of OT (2014, Kis).
This information should be important for all pet professionals, veterinarians, dog behaviorists, dogs trainers, pet business owners and dog parent and guardians.
The situations we impose upon our dogs to be social may create extra stress. By using nice voices and soft touch, we can enhance the social exposure to be a pleasant one. The impact of the growth of companion animals play an important role in peoples lives. They can be therapy dogs, seeing eye dogs, seizure detection dogs, and they can help in the recuperation process of healing from surgeries and other health related processes, and or just family companion pets. The more we understand the human animal bond, the more we can use it to improve peoples lives. Pets positively affect physical health, ease anxiety, and decrease stress. There are many benefits to the elderly having pets in their lives. They can even be beneficial as temporary companions.
Another study about humans and their dogs, included dog owners who received a long gaze from their dog that they were bonded with. These test individuals tested with a high urine output level of OT. In other words, a simple look of appreciation from your favorite pet pal can stimulate OT in your brain as well. This study supports p+ effects of pet ownership (2009, Lee).
The more dogs become more and more popular as a canine companion, the more important it is for us to understand about the dog as a whole and meet the needs of the dog at a level to maintain health responsibilities, activity, proper nutrition, exercise, training and a reduction in liability. Some of these rituals and activities we put our dogs through can induce undesirable amounts of stress on a dog without the common layperson or dog parent knowing.
Some signs of stress as provided by the Whole Dog Journal in dogs are listed below: The following is a list of physical characteristics expressed in dogs when they are stressed or under stress. The list is called the Canine Stress dictionary.
- Anorexia, a dog won’t eat.
Appeasement signals are as follows:
- Slow movements, lip licking, rolling over and lowering posture, turning away and averting eye contact, the muscles around the forehead ridges, they can have difficulty learning, and they can have digestive disturbances.
- Vomiting or diarrhea.
Displacement behaviors are seen in a dog trying to resolve internal stress:
- Blinking, nose licking, chattering teeth, scratching, shaking off, yawning, and drooling, excessive grooming, hyperactivity.
Other visible signs of stress can be lack of focus, leaning, clinging, mouthing, OCD, panting, stretching, sweaty paws, trembling, whining, yawning (2011, Whole dog journal).
As a professional certified pet dog trainer and a experienced dog daycare founder of 10 years, I would like to hypothesize the process of OT stimulation in my doggie daycare that may keep dog daycares altercations at a bare minimum. Altercation prevention is the number one role for my staff for up to 50 dogs per day. We have possibly 1 or 2 dog fights or bites that require veterinary medical attention per year. These numbers for this environment is incredibly low for a cage-free setting. We are constantly observing dogs for increased levels of stress and or body language that is an indicator of an elevated stress threshold. The staff is trained to recognize stressed behaviors and respond by using a high pitch happy voice to call and redirect the dogs. We also use gentle touch combined with calm voices to redirect dogs that appear in near confrontational circumstances. The effects of these techniques, virtually always results in the dogs body language instantly changing to a more relaxed body position and quite often into a happy tail wagging, confidant ready to socialize dog. (Val Stallings, CPDT. KA, CGC Evaluator, RN, BS Student, Send Rover on Over President).
Humans send signals to dogs too. Staring, scowling, yelling, and approaching a fearful dog head on, are behaviors that can be intimidating. Recognizing dogs under stress and avoiding offensive human etiquette can help keep OT levels up and Cortisol levels down. Using a soft eye and a warm smile and speaking in a warm happy and friendly excited voice will help to prompt OT in an exogenous way (2007, Ohare).
Why it is important to understand how OT works in dogs?
By understanding how dogs think and behave and learn, and being able to read their stress levels, you can help provide techniques that can help to formulate a decrease in the stress levels in dogs and increase their natural OT levels with simple voice tones as well as touch. These simple techniques can promote an optimal level of social enhancement as well as promote a feeling of calm and well-being while reducing the chances of a potential altercation or exchange of canine unpleasantries.
To assess positive emotional response in dogs from P+ stimulus of eating, exercising and stroking, these were all assumed to inspire a positive emotion in dogs. The experimental dogs were fed, walked and petted. Shortly after, a significant urine OT concentration was noted. These finding represent the fact that pleasant and positive stimulus increases the OT levels that can be safely used in a non invasive manner for further types of studies (2011, Mitsui).
We do not know a lot about hormonal mechanisms response to vocal cues, but we do know that tone of voice or vocalizations are important components of social behavior in many vertebrate species, including our own. It is hypothesized that vocalizations may be able to promote the release of OT and in a test conducted with a negative stressor applied to a child, the mother then provided comfort measures using touch or tactile stimulation with vocal cues and reassurance. The cortisol or
stress hormone levels were measured in the saliva. The cortisol levels were elevated which is a normal clinical finding when under stress. The other group of test studies used a soothing voice to comfort the children. The levels of cortisol were reduced and OT levels increased with just voice alone, proving that voice and vocalizations in themselves can increase OT levels and reduce stress(2010, Selzer). The neuro hormone , OT, partly governs biological and social processes and suppresses the stress response after contact with trusted con specifics.
If we compare mammals and especially Human mammals to Canine mammals, there are more similarities in these two mammals then many other species. With that said, the impact of OT on humans in the respect of promoting social enhancement and a bonding effect, even though the studies on Canines is limited, the scientific concept and principle should be comparable.
References and Bibliography
Churchland, P., Winkleman, P., (12/2014) Modulating Social behaviors with oxytocin
Kis, A., Hernadi, A., Orsolya, K., Gacsi, M., Topal, J. (2014) Oxytocin induces P+ expectaions about ambivalent stimuli in dogs.
Lee, H., McBeth, A., Pagani, J., Young, W., 3rd. ( June 2009) Oxytocin: The great facilitator of life.
Mitsui, S., Yamamoto, M., Nagasawa, M., Mogi, K., Kikusui, T(2011)
Urinary oxytocin as a non invasive biomarker of P+ emotion in dogs
Morell, V. (2014) Love hormone has same effect on humans and dogs.
NA. (2011) A Canine Stress Dictionary
.NA (2015) Reasons for dog fighting
O’Heare, J., (2007) Aggressive Behavior in dogs. Dog psych Publishing. Ottawa, Canada.
Romero, T., Nagasawa, M., Kazutaga, M., Toshikazu, H., Takefumi, K., (June, 24, 2014). Oxytocin promotes social bonding in dogs.
Selzer, L. (May, 2010) Social Vocalizations can release oxytocin in humans.
www.rspb.The Royal Society Publishing.org