I cannot fathom the number of hours I spend here in my book-lined study in front of my iMac – writing for you!
Under my desk, a simple pine Parsons table with no drawers, lies Riley, my five-and-a-half-year-old Dandie Dinmont Terrier. Always.
He makes all my work, which is also my passion, perfect. I love being here because he's always here with me, lying at my feet – a warm cuddly reminder of his loyalty and love for me.
Sometimes he gives my toes a bath with his affectionate licks. Other times, he sleeps curled up, contentedly. If I get up, he raises his head. If I leave the room, he follows me. He is always with me, body and soul, wherever I am, whatever I do. Steadfast. My constant companion. Joined, latched on, like a baby.
He loves me. Adores me. Not just because I feed him and groom him. He depends on me. And I adore him. I find holding him in my arms and stroking him the most relaxing activity in the world. We have the perfect bond.
It's all chemistry. Neurochemistry. Oxytocin. The hormone of love.
I remember first reading about oxytocin and writing a story about it for The Toronto Sun in 1993, sparked by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times science writer Natalie Angier's November 2, 1993 story What Makes a Parent Put Up With It All?
Meg Daley Olmert read that same story – and it changed her life.
Back then, neuroscientists were on the threshold of their investigations into brain chemistry and, in this case, human parental-social bonding.
"Oxytocin is familiar to doctors as the hormone that spurs birth contractions and milk production in women... But lately scientists have realized that the power of the hormones extends far beyond physiology," Angier wrote.
"'Nature is conservative, and this a beautiful example of that... The same peptides that are important for things like uterine contradictions and feeding an infant are also important for monogamous social bonds and parental behaviour,'" Angier quoted National Institute of Mental Health (NIMI) neuroscientist, and now NIMI director Dr. Thomas Insel as saying.
Angier was reporting primarily on what scientists were beginning to discover about human-to-human bonding, through their studies of animals and in some cases, "measuring women's blood levels of oxytocin before and during pregnancy."
But she concluded then, that many of these findings were still highly speculative.
Meanwhile, Meg Daley Olmert, a native New Yorker, was always fascinated with animals. She was born with a natural way with them. She worked with veterinarians, and later with National Geographic Television, watching how people and wild animals interact. Endlessly fascinated.
In 1993, actress and conservationist Stephanie Powers hired her to develop a series on the history of animals and humans. Olmert's research led her to scientists who were studying the therapeutic healing effects of having people with heart disease and mental illnesses engage with animals.
She witnessed how young boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders were calmer and more attentive when paired with or even just in the company of rabbits, turtles, gerbils and doves. She started asking questions and discovered what we all now know and almost take for granted.
That our interactions with animals can lower our heart rate and blood pressure.
She started asking why? How did this biologically happen?
No one knew. Olmert, it seems, was the first person to seriously ask those questions and pursue the answers.
That's when she read Angier's 1993 New York Times story.
Instead of following Angier's lead and tracing the scientists investigating human-to-human bonding, Olmert began her own personal odyssey – an investigation of the human-animal bond and the power of the hormone oxytocin in this immutable bond.
She contacted the same scientists Angier had interviewed, those working with animals who released oxytocin, but invariably got only so far, before hitting dead-ends.
In 1993, research into neurochemistry and human behaviour was booming. (Today, it's booming even louder.)
More and more questions were haunting Olmert.
Why did animals have this obvious calming effect on humans? How did it happen biologically? What was the history of this bond? How did humans first domesticate wild animals?
Oxytocin, it would seem, was the key, she surmised, but no one was studying this particular phenomenon scientifically.
It was years before she finally found the scientific hook she needed.
In 2003, in South Africa, two researchers had actually measured blood pressure levels and chemistry in 18 humans and dogs before, during and after warm, friendly interactions.
They found that oxytocin in both humans and dogs practically doubled. That meant that pets are one of the most powerful triggers of oxytocin, this "hormone of love" in humans.
I've known that since I was 17 in the Spring 1966 – though I certainly had no idea why. Could barely think clearly about almost anything. My mother had bought me my first dog, a two-year-old retired Yorkshire Terrier show dog. Derry was the sweetest, gentlest, kindest little fellow I've ever known. She felt, instinctively, that having the responsibility of caring for him would help me recover – heal me – after seven tumultuous, mind-numbing months in The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry after my first and by-far worst-ever psychotic episode.
Mother knew best.
Derry did. From then on, I was utterly smitten with dogs. I've had six, including Riley and his mischievous female companion, Lucy.
Their amazing predecessor, Murphy the Wonder Dog, a poodle/shih-tzu cross was a St. John's Ambulance Therapy Dog. For several years, we went to the adolescent and adult psychiatric wards at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre – no one else had the nerve – where I witnessed first-hand how he calmed agitated and anxious patients by simply rolling over on his back and luxuriating as they rubbed his tummy.
I cannot live without a dog in my life.
For those of us living with psychiatric diagnoses, the repercussions of emotional trauma and mental health issues, our pets have long been our most loyal living companions. Stroking them calms us more easily and effortlessly – more safely – than any psychotropic drug. While mental illnesses have a sorry history of socially marginalizing us, our pets are oblivious to this discrimination and prejudice. It doesn't compute with them.
All they want is to connect with us. Bond with us. To be touched and to touch us.
Animals, especially our pet dogs and cats, are often our significant others. They love us more divinely than any human possibly can. Without explanation. They understand us on a visceral level that cannot be matched by any psychiatrist or psychotherapist or even close relatives. Even, dare I say, a spouse. Without words. Babies. Like little children who never grow up. No wonder we anthropomorphize them.
Spell the word "dog" backwards and you have "god". The origin of the word "dog" remains one of the greatest etymological mysteries of the English language. I wonder why.
There's more to the animal-human bond than biology and neuroscience, I'm sure. Just as there's more to the human-human bond than biology and neuroscience. But, we are still on the threshold of our understanding of these complex, always unique relationships. Still learning. There's so much more to learn, with each new discovery.
Our world of knowledge is expanding exponentially and it's often overwhelming for me. But I'm curious. That's why I keep an open mind.
The healing power of dogs has been studied and celebrated, but Meg Daley Olmert's landmark book, Made for Each Other (The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond) published in February 2009 (Da Capo Press,$30) is the first to seriously examine the biology and neuroscience in the manifold bonds between animals and us.
She will be giving an exclusive lecture about her research findings on Saturday, June 6 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Pawsway Pet Discovery Centre near Toronto's Harbourfront Centre on the shore of Lake Ontario, at 245 Queen's Quay West.
Tickets are $40 before June 5 and $45 at the door. Call (416) 360-PAWS (7297) to reserve. Seating is limited.
Signed, specially discounted copies of her book will be there.
And so will I.
P.S. Good News: Commenting is fixed. I long to hear from you. All is well with the world! :–)