The title to this article was going to be, “domestic cats and dogs have learned how to manipulate us”, but that seems to be a bit too extreme. Although there is a certain element of manipulation in the behavior of both domestic cats and dogs in respect of their communication with us and how they have learned to get what they want from our relationship with them.
Some time ago there was quite a lot of discussion on the internet about how the domestic cat had modified its meow to sound like a baby. It was a more subtle modification than that but the slightly modified and insistent meow was a learned form of communication to trigger what I’ve described as the ‘baby response’ from their human caretakers/guardians. This helps to create a better bond and it helps to ensure that the cat gets his/her way in her demands for food etc..It should also be added that adult cats only meow at us, which is also a modified behavioral trait as a result of cat domestication.
Today in the Times newspaper, there is an interesting article along similar lines about the domestic dog which caught my eye. The story relates to a study by Japanese biologist writing in Science.
The study came to the conclusion that, “… Dogs are able to use mutual gaze as a communication tool”. In other words, dogs are able to use human social communicative behaviors; a learned process over thousands of years.
As I understand the research, the domestic dog is able to gaze into the eyes of his human caretaker as if he were an infant which triggers the production of the hormone in the human called oxytocin. At the same time the dog also produces high levels of oxytocin when the owner either strokes her dog or looks back into his eyes.
Oxytocin is a hormone released by the pituitary gland which initiates the contraction of the uterus during labour and “facilitates the ejection of milk from the breast during nursing”². It is a hormone, therefore, which is associated with parenthood and child rearing. It has been described as the body’s “cuddle” hormone.
It seems to me that the cat has primarily chosen vocalization to trigger the production of the cuddle hormone in humans and the dog has chosen a form of visual communication to achieve the same result. Although, the cat’s appearance with large eyes and a round face looks like a baby so there is always a background effect from the cat’s appearance which facilitates a nurturing response from the human.
It is said that the laboratory tests indicated that dogs benefit from a “feedback loop” of oxytocin. This, I believe, refers to the fact that oxytocin is produced in the human, on gazing at his dog, whereupon the dog also produces the same hormone creating a loop and reinforcing behaviour from both parties. The bond is strengthened and the dog is likely to receive what he desires as a consequence.
Note: 2 – definition from the Free Dictionary. Picture of dog (Molly) by ukhomeoffice on Flickr. She is a working dog trained to find drugs and currency. She likes cuddles.