If you spend much time in the dog-loving corners of the Internet, you’ve probably heard of Jen Golbeck—or you’ve at least seen her dogs.
As a computer scientist at the University of Maryland who studies social media, Golbeck wanted to create a space on these platforms that felt like a respite from the widespread anger she’d witnessed across the political spectrum after the 2016 presidential election. Every day for the past seven years, she and her husband have shared photographs and videos of the “Golden Ratio”—their punny name for their pack of golden retrievers—with the world. The dogs dance in anticipation of their food bowls, swim in the ocean behind their Florida Keys home and wrestle each other. Golbeck hoped this window into her dog-full world would be a soothing place for others.
Golbeck’s many dogs (the current roster includes Venkman, Feta, Guacamole, Remoulade and Chief Brody) have enriched her life—joining her on runs and comforting her in stressful times. They have also shown her love in return, especially after they have gotten older or when they have been ill. These experiences, along with her academic background in information studies, made her want to delve into the science of the human-dog bond, which she does in her new book The Purest Bond: Understanding the Human-Canine Connection, written with science writer Stacey Colino. Scientific American spoke with Golbeck about the book and the bonds she has shared with her own dogs.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
One of my favorite moments in the book is when you describe yourself as coping with tough days by laying on the floor and being enveloped “in a cloud of golden retrievers.” It sounds like heaven. How did you come to realize the power of the bonds between you and your pups?
We opened the book with middle school me. I was bullied. Everything in life sucked. I was also really depressed—kind of borderline suicidal. I was having a really hard time, and my parents could tell that something was wrong. But they didn’t put me in therapy. They bought me a golden retriever puppy—his name was Major—which turned out to be totally the right move. (I did end up in therapy later, which was great. Don’t skip therapy.) I call him “my suicide prevention dog”—that’s what he lives on as in my heart. He was everything I needed at that point: He was nonjudgmental and wanted to be with me. He was the only entity in the universe I didn’t feel awkward around. I could confide in him. He gave me this place to get away from all of those other problems and feel like I was important and I mattered and I was worthy.
I loved dogs before that, but he was the first one who kind of opened my eyes to the real power that that relationship can have, that it can be really transformative. Fast-forward a bunch of time: we rescue special-needs golden retrievers; currently we have five of them. We take in seniors, hospice cases and ones with complicated medical needs. It’s so rewarding. We get to watch them transform from these really sick, broken dogs into happy, joyful dogs who appreciate this warm, gentle life.
The book delves into the science of how we relate to our dogs. Can you talk about some of the physiological impacts that dogs can have on us?
If you look at any part of your [health]—physical, mental, psychological and social—your dogs are going to make all of that better. The science is really strong there.
There was a great study that we cite in the book that talks about if you have a heart attack, you [are less likely to die within a year after] if you own a dog than if you don’t have a dog. And you can be like, “Well, yeah, if you have a dog, you’re going to walk more, right?” But even if you control for the amount of walking, people who have dogs still live longer. So this was a real question: If physical activity isn’t the cause, why is it that our physical health is improved by having dogs?
If you look across all of these different studies, one of the themes that emerges is something that we already knew from psychology: if you have a robust system of social support—you’ve got a supportive family, and you’ve got a big social network of friends and people who care about you—your health markers tend to be better. That social support is critical for your physical health, not just your psychological health.
It turns out that dogs are able to serve as those social-support systems in our life as well as people can [in some ways]. There are a few studies that get deep down into the statistics of it, and they find that the physical benefits of having a dog are greater for people who have smaller social networks. So, for instance, older adults who maybe have lost their spouse, their social circle is smaller, they’re dealing with loneliness—they see these really dramatic increases in benefits from having dogs.
Did you have any favorite bits of research you came across when writing the book?
When I was in middle school, I had a science teacher who told us that dogs didn’t really love us back—that if they licked us, it was because we were salty. And I remember being so mad, but I also was 12, so I had no capacity to argue back. Now I have written a book to avenge that memory.
The science is so clear that dogs love us back. We know from psychology about this thing called attachment bonds and that the ones we form with our [primary caregiver early on can] go on to influence our relationships for the rest of our life. One of the ways researchers have studied attachment bonds is by putting babies in fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] machines, which show the parts of your brain that [have increased blood flow] when you’re thinking about different things. When the researchers let the babies see their mom, a certain part of their brain lights up that doesn’t light up for family friends or people they don’t know as well. So we know that that part of the brain is responsible for the attachment bond. That’s where it manifests, neurologically.
Researchers have done this study with dogs. They trained dogs to lay really still in an fMRI—which is kind of amazing by itself—and then they would have the dogs’ human come up so they could see and smell the person. And the same part of the dogs’ brain lit up when they saw their human as happened in babies when they saw their mother. So what we know is that on a neurological level, dogs have that same kind of love response when they see us as babies have when they see their mom.
That’s not the only study that shows we have this real biological evidence that our dogs love us back. We can measure it in hormone levels—for example, when we pet and interact with our dog, we get this surge of oxytocin. But the dogs get that surge, too, when we pet them or gaze into their eyes. I just love how it’s this really classic science of love and connection that shows up perfectly with dogs.
Are there any misconceptions that maybe people have about dogs and how we relate to them that you particularly wanted to dispel?
When I tell people I have five golden retrievers, often I’ll get asked, like, “Which one is the alpha?” If I’m feeling kind, I will say I am. And if I’m not feeling kind, I’ll give them the lecture, which is that the science of a hierarchy has been very thoroughly debunked. There were studies originally that were like, “Oh, there’s the alpha; there’s a beta; there’s kind of aggression in there to keep each other in line.” But it was these really contrived studies of dogs in these captive, unloving environments where they were being studied in not a gentle way. And the side effect of that environment was that they ended up establishing this hierarchy to survive these kind of torturous situations.
Dogs are very social creatures. They live in families. So if you think of a human family, is there an alpha there? I mean, maybe there’s somebody who’s a little more in charge, and there are different personalities, but you’re all coexisting together. And that’s really what dogs want, too. If you try to adopt this kind of aggressive “I am the alpha; you will do as I say; pin them down” thing, dogs are smart, and they’ll respond to that. But they want to have respectful, gentle, caring relationships.
Is there anything you want people who are thinking about getting a dog to take away from the book?
[Colino and I] talked about making a PowerPoint to go with the book for people who are trying to convince their family members to get a dog. If you are thinking about getting the dog, and you need evidence, that’s exactly what this book is.
Our main audience is probably people who already have dogs. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that’s going to be earth-shattering for them; what you’re really going to find is recognition of a lot of your own experience with dogs and all this rigorous science that backs it up. Hopefully it gives you new insights into the things that you feel, and you’ll find out some new things about just how deep that relationship goes.
One of the takeaways that I’ve heard a lot of people say is “I just felt so validated”—because sometimes people treat us like we’re a little crazy for loving dogs as much as we do. This book is going to give you all the scientific evidence that you’re not crazy. You’re not making it up. All of this is real and profound.
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