Pets we call our ‘fur babies’ provide us with more than just companionship | TBEN radio

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It’s no mistake that you find that puppy on TikTok both sweet and adorable. After all, we made them that way.

For millennia we have been selecting and breeding dogs that would like to befriend us.

Stan Coren, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, says that for 14,000 years humans have “systematically selected dogs that are, for the most part, very sociable.”

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“We created what we hoped would be our best friends,” he said.

“And for the most part, we succeeded.”

Wolves are the ancestors of today’s domestic dogs. (Oliver Morin/TBEN/Getty Images)

We’ve also selected the cutest: the dogs that trigger an innate maternal response.

Western Carolina University professor emeritus Hal Herzog said research indicates that animals can activate our brains and release chemicals in the same way that babies do.

“We tend to like animals that look cute, and cute is often defined as features of human babies — you know, big eyes and chubby faces and things like that,” said Herzog, who describes the psychological, cultural and biological aspects of our relationships with pets.

Science columnist Torah Kachur explored what drives us to love our furry friends and what they contribute to our lives in a special broadcast on TBEN Radio.

LISTEN: TBEN Radio special Fur Babies explores our relationship with pets:

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What is it about our furry or scaly or feathered friends that keep us so attached? In this hour of tales of camaraderie and science, discover why that wet nose is so attractive. We will also explore how different cultures relate to the animals in our lives and hear some of the legends, myths and traditions that define our current ties.

Dogs are social creatures

According to Cree legend, dogs were a gift from the maker, says Randy Morin, a Cree language custodian of the Big River First Nation and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

The creator, he says, acknowledged that hunters struggled to keep up with the animals they shot, and that orphans were often lonely without others to spend time with.

“When the people got the puppies, they could go hunting… they would have a playmate,” Morin said.

Two small dogs, one black-gray and one blonde in color, look up into a camera.
TBEN Radio columnist Torah Kachur’s dogs, Marco, left and Polo, right, pose for the camera. (Submitted by Torah Kachur)

Dogs’ willingness to be companions to their humans may be related to the fact that their relationship with us is mutually beneficial. Humans and dogs have worked together for thousands of years, hunting and traveling together and protecting each other from threats.

“Humans and wolves may have found ways to work together to make their lives better,” said Robert Losey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta who studies dog domestication. Those wolves would eventually grow into dogs, he added.

While the domestication of an animal like the wolf may seem surprising, canines are inherently social animals, experts say. They befriend and protect other animals outside their species, such as sheep.

That sociable nature could explain why dogs today are often uncomfortable when alone.

“You hear a lot of people complaining that their dogs suffer from separation anxiety,” Coren says. “Well, being alone isn’t exactly pleasant for dogs.”

A cream and black colored pug, with his tongue stuck out, poses for the camera
Certain breeds, such as pugs, were bred to emphasize features we consider cute, such as large eyes and short muzzles. (Josh Edelson/TBEN/Getty Images)

Pets are just cute

Coziness is a factor in explaining our love for dogs and other pets, but cuteness drives our response to it.

Hertzog pointed to an MRI-based study that examined how human brains responded to pictures of cute animals.

“The same parts of your brain light up when you look at a cute animal as when you look at a baby,” he said.

“It’s the same parts of our brain, the emotional parts of our brain that give us a shot of dopamine, a feel-good substance, or oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, a binding hormone that we [get] when we see, you know, little kids who are cute.”

But beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. Take, for example, pugs or the French bulldog. Both breeds were bred specifically to emphasize “cute” features such as big eyes and short muzzles, but Hertzog says that while he thinks they’re cute, his wife finds them repulsive.

Animals for Therapy

Ultimately, dogs can bring a therapeutic element to our lives. Canines are increasingly being used in therapy practices to calm and calm people down.

“First of all, you can talk to them and they never look shocked,” Coren said. “They accept your pain and your misdeeds without any form of disapproval.

“Second, they tend to approach and demand our attention and affection.”

The fact that dogs are also soft to the touch and warmer than humans help provide comfort by triggering a relaxation response.

A yellow lab wears a yellow vest and name badge that reads Molly The Dog, Pet Therapy Dog, Looks Up
According to one study, animals can provide therapeutic benefits to humans, with effects lasting for hours. (Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

Coren says he was initially unconvinced by the claims that dog therapy could have positive results. But after a study examining the effect of canines on exam-stressed college students, he changed his mind.

“It turned out that when we measured them 10 hours later, they still showed the effects of reduced negative emotions and increased positivity,” Coren said.

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Eileen Bona, a registered psychologist and founder of Dreamcatcher Ranch in Ardrossan, Alta., attributes it to the unconditional love an animal can provide.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of diagnoses, or if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, or things like that; the animal doesn’t know that,” she said.

“As long as you’re nice, the animal will love you, which in many cases gives people the opposite message of what they believe about themselves.”