When my husband suffered a serious injury a few years ago, we brought him home from emergency surgery and parked him on the sofa for a month. His pain was out of this world, which wasn’t just obvious to me, being the one responsible for giving pain medication, but it was also evident to our pitbull, Bela.
Bela seemed to intuitively know that there was something very wrong, and that there was serious agony and misery occurring underneath the surface of her groggy, tired dad on the sofa. For weeks of bedrest, she refused to leave him alone except to eat and go outside. She didn’t just stay near him, but normally had her head resting on his chest or shoulder. When he woke up, she would look into his eyes to communicate, “I already know how you’re feeling, but I’m not leaving until you’re better.” My husband credits Bela and her therapeutic nature as key to his recovery, but the science behind this is fascinating, and is not limited to dogs with training.
Recognizing Your Mood and Smelling Your Pain
Research at the University of Lincoln, UK, found that dogs, “can recognize emotions in humans by combining information from different senses.” Your dog recognizes when you’re sad or in pain by facial recognition and body language, but the most interesting sense they use is smell. Dogs are good at detecting cancers and illnesses before they become diagnosed by smelling the chemicals in your blood through body odor and breath. In the same way, when you’re in pain, dogs can smell the chemicals of your elevated cortisol levels (stress hormones) and your low serotonin levels (feel-good hormones), and compare them with how you normally smell. What they do with that information differs by dog, and some dogs make it a personal mission to change it.
Making You Feel Better
We’ve written before about dogs hacking our emotions with the love hormone (https://toothandhoney.com/think-dogs-put-better-mood/), oxytocin, but there’s a little more to the therapeutic benefits they have to offer. Dogs’ domestication over the years has evolved side-by-side with humans, which goes beyond being cute because they want food. They have evolved with us to want us to feel better because it makes them feel better. When they sense that something is off with you, they want to fix it by making us feel like we are loved and cared for and giving us attention. When they do this, they smell a decrease in the bad cortisol levels and an increase in the good serotonin and dopamine levels. When that happens, it then increases their own feel-good levels, and makes them further connect with you in a happy hormone cocktail topped with feel-good oxytocin that strengthens the bond between you.
Bela the Healer
Before his surgery, my husband already had a bond with Bela, but the help she gave him through the recovery process strengthened it even more. She could sense that he was acting differently when he came home from the hospital—bedridden for weeks on end—but she could also smell that his pain hormones were elevated. She noticed that her presence changed those levels and took it into her own paws to stay with him until she was happy with the outcome. Like any dog, Bela wants us to feel good for no other reason than because it makes her feel good doing it.