It’s fair to say that our relationships in life require mental presence and a willingness to connect in order to thrive. Well, the same goes for your relationship with your dog.
In a busy world of daily distractions (social media being a prime example), what happens when we spend too much time on our phones — do our pets notice? Is your phone making your dog depressed?
Dr. Iain Booth, a veterinary surgeon in the United Kingdom, made this assertion more than four years ago. We’ve decided to revisit the topic because during the pandemic, many people became pet parents while simultaneously spending more time on their phones.
We spoke with Colleen Safford, a dog trainer, behavior expert and owner of Far Fetched Acres, for more insight on our relationship with our pets and what dogs might be thinking when we’re on our phones.
Is your phone making your dog depressed?
While no two relationships are the same, each benefits from communication and attention. When it comes to the friendship between humans and dogs, we should try and understand their wants and needs so every pet can live their best life. While we rely on our dogs for love and companionship, they rely on us for, well, everything.
“While I hesitate to ever say that humans can fully understand exactly what is going on in the brain of man’s best friend, dogs by their very nature are deeply dependent on humans,” Safford told The Dodo. “We control every resource in their life, including food, exercise, affection, guidance and support. By their very nature, dogs are codependents in the world of domestic living! Simply put, we are their everything.”
While the larger issue of our dependence on phones is worth countless studies, a few things are clear: Too much screen time can lead to depression and anxiety in humans, among other issues. And it can isolate us from anyone in our presence — including our dogs.
“In relationship to dog depression, if an owner has thumbs too busy to provide petting, eyes too distracted to see that their dog is trying to play fetch, and a brain too busy to provide all those verbal ‘good boys,’ it is easy to understand why phone use can impact a dog’s overall health,” Safford said. “By not supplying our dogs with exercise, verbal attention or physical contact, we are ignoring their needs and increasing the chances of behavior issues and anxiety.”
As Booth said in his interview (in reference to ignoring your dog in favor of your phone), “You do that consistently for weeks, months and years on end, and you’re going to get some real behavioral issues.” So some dogs may even start misbehaving to get your attention.
While wholly dependent on the individual dog, this is something that every dog parent should be aware of, especially considering current events — as mentioned above, during the pandemic, dog adoptions went up as did smartphone usage.
Putting the phone down is step one
“Humans and dogs both release oxytocin from petting and affection, and release endorphins during exercises,” Safford said. “No petting or affection — no love hormone. No movement — no feel-good hormones. It’s as simple as that.”
Physical activity is necessary to maintain a bond with your dog. “Grab a ball and leash, and nurture and deepen that bond. Give your dog all those words of affirmation,” Safford said.
He definitely deserves it.
I guess the question is how much is too much. But I have my doubts that the majority of dog owners are that disconnected from their precious animals
Head shape and playfulness can play a part, study finds.
How much time does your dog spend looking into your eyes? It could depend on the shape of their head, among other factors.
Making eye contact is an important part of human relationships and it can be key in person-canine bonding too. But all dogs aren’t equal when it comes to eye gazing, finds a new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports.1
“Eye contact is an important non-verbal signal in humans. We use it in conversations to show that we are paying attention to each other,” study first author Zsófia Bognár, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, tells Treehugger. “Also, the oxytocin levels in both parties rise, which plays a role in the development of social bonding.”
This social connection is easily observed when a bond is formed between a mother and a baby, she points out.
But eye contact is not so important for dog relationships. They don’t look into each other’s eyes very often, and when they do, it’s antagonistic and challenging behavior.1
“Dogs tend to make eye contact with humans, and research found that oxytocin levels also rose in both parties when owners and dogs formed eye contact,” Bognár says. “It is also known that dogs do not behave the same, differences can be found between them.”
Earlier studies found that shorter-headed dogs were more successful at following pointing gestures from humans and watched pictures of faces for longer periods of time.21
Snub-nosed dogs have a more pronounced area in the retina of the eye responsible for central vision, so they can better respond to things happening right in front of them.1 Longer-nosed dogs have a more panoramic vision, so they’re more easily distracted by things going on all around them.1
The researchers decided to see how head shape and other factors also influenced eye contact.
Why Head Shape Matters
Researchers worked with 130 family dogs for the study. First, they measured the length and width of their heads to determine what’s called the cephalic index—the ratio of the maximum length and width of the head.
Short-headed or brachycephalic dog breeds include boxers, bulldogs, and pugs.
Long-headed or dolichocephalic dog breeds include greyhounds, Great Danes, and German shepherds.
Medium-headed or mesocephalic dog breeds include Labrador retrievers, Cocker spaniels, and border collies.
Then, on to the testing.
First, the experimenter would call the dog’s name and reward the dog with a treat. Then the experimenter would stay silent and motionless, waiting for the dog to establish eye contact. They then rewarded the dog with a treat each time eye contact was made.
The experiment ended after five minutes or after 15 episodes of eye contact were made. During this test, the dog’s owner remained in the room (silent, motionless, and not looking at the dog) so the dog wouldn’t be stressed due to separation.
They measured how many times the dog made eye contact as well as how much time elapsed between eating the treat and the next time the dog made eye contact. The team found that the shorter the dog’s nose, the more quickly it made eye contact with the researcher.1
“We assumed that due to this, snub-nosed dogs could focus their attention better to their communication partner because other visual stimuli coming from the periphery could disturb them less,” Bognár says.
But there’s also the chance that pugs, bulldogs, and other similar dogs just get more of a chance to interact with people because of the baby-like way they look.1
“We couldn’t exclude the possibility that these dogs have more opportunity to learn to engage with humans and make eye contact with them,” Bognár says. “Because humans have a preference for ‘baby schema’ features, and the characteristics of snub-nosed dogs’ heads are in accordance with these features, thus the owners of these dogs may pay more attention towards them and are more likely to engage in mutual gaze with their animals.”
Age, Playfulness, and Breed Characteristics
But the head shape wasn’t the only factor that came into play. Researchers found that a dog’s age, playfulness, and general cooperative nature due to breed characteristics all played a role in how much eye contact they made with the experimenter.1
They found dogs that were originally bred to take visual cues made more eye contact. For example, herding dogs who follow directions from the owner to work livestock, are “visually cooperative” breeds that are more likely to make eye contact. Sled dogs that run in front of a musher or dachshunds that are bred to chase prey underground are “visually non-cooperative” breeds that rely on vocal cues and don’t have to see their owners.1
Interestingly, dogs that were mixed breeds performed just as well as cooperative breeds. About 70% of the mixed breed dogs in the study were adopted from a shelter. Maybe their eagerness to make eye contact helped get them adopted in the first place, the researchers suggest.1
The researchers also found that older dogs made less eye contact. They had a harder time controlling their attention and were slower switching from the treat to the experimenter.1
A dog’s playfulness was another factor that impacted eye contact. To measure a dog’s playfulness, the off-leash dog was in a room with the owner. The experimenter walked in with a ball and a rope and offered them to the dog. If the dog chose one, they played with the toy for a minute. If the dog didn’t choose a toy, the experimenter tried to initiate a social interaction.
A dog was given a high playfulness score if it played enthusiastically with the experimenter, brought the ball back at least once, or tugged on the rope. It was given a low playfulness score if it didn’t touch the toys, ran after the ball but didn’t bring it back, or took the rope but didn’t tug on it. Researchers found that dogs with high playfulness were quicker to establish eye contact than dogs with low playfulness.1
“Eye contact can help dogs to decide whether the message/command what the human says/shows are directed to them. They are more likely to execute a command if the human looks at them than shows its back or looks at another human/dog,” Bognár says.
“Dogs also use their gaze to communicate with humans, for example, gaze alternation can be a way to direct humans’ attention to different objects like an unreachable piece of food or a ball,” adds Bognár. “And it can also play a role in social bonding through oxytocin hormone.”
Interesting! No, it is more than that. It is science at work.
Zsófia Bognár, the study’s first author, makes the point that: “Eye contact is an important non-verbal signal in humans. We use it in conversations to show that we are paying attention to each other. Also, the oxytocin levels in both parties rise, which plays a role in the development of social bonding.“
So returning to our dear Oliver we can see that the levels of oxytocin rise in Oliver and in Jean or me depending on who Oliver has engaged with.
Speaking of Oxytocin let’s go across to an article in Psychology Today that explains a little more about this important hormone.
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It plays an important role in reproduction, initiating contractions before birth as well as milk release. And it is thought to be involved in broader social cognition and behavior, potentially ranging from mother-infant bonding and romantic connection to group-related attitudes and prejudice. The hormone is produced in the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland.
Why Is Oxytocin Called the “Love Hormone?”
Oxytocin has been called “the cuddle hormone” or “the love hormone” due to its association with pair bonding. It appears to help reinforce the early attachment between mothers and their infants, as well as the bonds between romantic partners. Animal research has connected oxytocin (along with another hormone, vasopressin) with the lifelong pair-bonding of prairie voles, and scientists have reported increases in oxytocin levels following orgasm in humans. There is also evidence that increases in oxytocin may encourage prosocial behavior, though not all studies have found these positive results, and some experts have undercut the idea that the hormone is a “trust molecule.”
Yesterday I used as a sub-heading “I will never, ever tire of the wonderful connections made by this blog!”
I wrote that before Sydney sent in a guest post which reached out to me, to Jeannie and, undoubtedly, will reach out to many others. Sydney further validated the power of the wonderful connections that blogging brings.
Here’s how it came about.
Not that long ago, there was a new follower to this place. As is so frequently the case that new follower was also a blogger. Their blog is called very beautifully: Recovery For All Of My Heart. As I always try to do, I went across to leave a ‘thank you’ note. I also read the About page that I want to republish here by way of my introduction to Sydney.
Hello, I am in recovery from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety. The way I got to the best place in my mind is by changing my perspective.
In this blog, I use my new open-mindedness to show the world the beauty I see in hopes that others will then see the beauty in themselves. For me, all it took was to see the beauty in myself, but I needed someone to help me see it first. My hope is to be that person for others.
There is a way to see the good in every piece of you. You can get your mindset to see what others love about you. The proof of everyone’s beauty lies in changing your perspective and this blog hopes to put into light the beauty in everyone that ever existed.
So now to Sydney’s post. (And if you want to understand why I chose the title to this post, then please read right down to the end.)
Mindfulness and a dog named Bailey
By Sydney R. February 23rd., 2017
When I was 21 years old, I got a hound boxer puppy named Bailey. Previously, I had a dog my mom and I raised when I was seven; she was named Rachel.
I only speak of Bailey in this post because of a certain situation I want to talk about, but I also wanted to mention how amazing Rachel was too.
Anyway, I raised Bailey to be the sweet almost two-year-old he is today. He is not a normal dog to me. This is because I believe him to be extraordinary (so original for dog owners, I know), and also because I have struggled with my mental health.
I have struggled with depression and he has changed my life for the better. One day last year I was having a very hard time with my depression. I wanted to just lay in bed and quit my job and begin isolating again. I wanted to just sleep and not fight the thoughts and just let them rattle on inside of my mind while I lay there.
I grabbed my dog as he was lying next to me and held onto him ready to remain in my negative thoughts for all eternity. Then something changed: I felt his fur. I felt my cheek against his fur. I heard his sweet little breathing that used to put me to sleep when he laid on my chest when he was a puppy. I was being mindful without even realizing it.
I was aware of everything I was feeling when holding this thing that is so dear to my heart.
Suddenly, all the pain went away. I was reminded of this feeling I can have while holding my dog. I can fight this depression and I can have a wonderful life. If you ever are feeling extremely sad or have any type of negative urges, and this can be about anything, grab your furry little one and just stay in the moment until they pass.
And why is this?
Research has shown that if you look into your dogs eyes, the hormonal response is activated just like the one that is activated when you look at infants. Scientists took blood samples of dogs and their owners before and during time spent petting. The results were that the levels of oxytocin went up in humans during a petting session of a dog and it was at very similar levels of new mothers and their infants.
Even more amazing, dogs had the same levels in their blood as well, showing how happy they are around their owners. During my depression that night, holding onto my dog was not just helping me overcome my sadness, he was having a nice time as well.
Now what I am guessing is that if you are sitting down, petting your dog, but not really paying much attention, your dog will be happy, but your oxytocin levels will not be as high as they could be. When you are mindful and staying in the moment whilst petting your dog, you could be seriously happy, to the point where your oxytocin levels from your dog stops you from ruminating on your negative thoughts.
Don’t just pet your dog when you are upset…make sure you are completely in the moment.
Notice your body and notice what your hands and arms are feeling as you wrap your arms around your dog. Let your hands and all of your arms feel the fur. Use all of your senses. Make sure you hear your dog and do not let your thoughts block out being in the moment. Regular petting of the dog is enjoyable. Mindful petting of a dog could change your life, like it did mine.
Now I will always know that I have something to go to when I feel depressed. This is extremely important because one huge part of depression is hopelessness. This is the feeling that you will always feel depressed.
With a dog, you have hope to get out of those feelings. I know that I have my dog to go to and I will never fear being sad forever again. I always have the mindful petting of Bailey or Rachel that will make the negative thoughts drain away.
Good people, I am genuinely humbled by both Sydney’s desire to share this with you, and by the magic of having a dog in our life.