Dog is God Spelled Backwards
Or maybe it's the other way around...
I know, I've been missing in action again. I apologize. For one, I don’t get into as many columnworthy romantic scrapes as I used to, partly due to the wisdom of age and partly due to age itself. But mostly, it’s because I’ve been elbows-deep in a new and entirely different project. I wrote a children’s picture book called WOOF!, about a lone wolf kind of girl who adopts an actual lone wolf from the dog pound. It’s illustrated by AI art generators that I trained on the oil paintings of my late father and it came out really cool. If you are between the ages of 3 and 8 — and if you are, what the hell are you doing reading this column? — or know someone between the ages of 3 and 8, or you just like dogs, or are interested in AI art, you should pick up a copy. You can get it here.
But I want to talk about why dogs are so important for love addicts.
The old joke is that the difference between men and dogs is a year later, the dog is still happy to see you come home. But it’s more than that. It’s brain science.
I’m the one who goes on and on about how behavioral addiction is essentially a physical disease, even though it often doesn’t look like that. It looks like a series of bad choices and worse behavior. But that’s what they used to say about alcoholism, too, until they knew better. Where sex and love addiction are no different from substance abuse is that this is essentially a brain disease characterized by compulsive reliance on a mind-altering behavior “despite negative life consequences,” as the professionals quaintly put it. Not to put too fine a point on it, our choices and behavior suck. We hurt ourselves and we hurt others, but were are doing it in an attempt to not hurt. To just be okay. Because in and of ourselves, we do not feel okay.
The reason we don’t feel okay on the natch is that the reward centers of our brains are not wired the same way as “normies.” My neurotransmitters are a tangle of limp spaghetti. I’m a muscle car with faulty spark plugs; my endorphins do not fire on all cylinders (ask your dad what a spark plug is, Zoomer…) I need more excitement to produce a sufficient amount of dopamine. I need more comfort to provide a sufficient amount of serotonin. I need more affection to provide a sufficient amount of oxytocin.
Mostly, it’s the oxytocin. I can get a jolt of dopamine jumping out of an airplane or swimming with sharks, and a nice infusion of serotonin at a day spa. But oxytocin, oxytocin is tough. Oxytocin is what you get from breast-feeding your child, or embracing your beloved, or having an orgasm.
You know where else you can get oxytocin? From petting a dog. This is not me being romantic, or into bestiality. This is scientific fact: check out this article from the magazine Science. In one Japanese study, men and women locking eyes with their companion dogs registered a 300% increase in oxytocin levels. (The dogs registered a 130% increase, so I guess they mean more to us than we do to them….) The best thing I ever did for my recovery was to adopt Laszlo from the East Valley Animal Shelter.
Laszlo gave me structure for my day: an addict can live a life chaotic, but a dog expects supper at 5. He exemplified the AA Big Book trope about how we judge ourselves by our intentions while the world is judging us by our actions: Intend to walk your dog and your dog poops in the house. And he reminded me of the insanity of maybe-this-time-it-will-be-different thinking: “I know I’m not allowed to jump the fence, but maybe today she won’t mind….”
But mostly, Laszlo loved me unconditionally. He looked in my eyes, and my oxytocin level jumped 300%. And you can’t get that with a prescription pad, or a quickie in the nightclub bathroom. Not consistently, at least, and not without those pesky negative life consequences.
So if you’re an addict seeking recovery — drug addict, love addict, anorexic, shopaholic, it doesn't matter — I urge you to get a dog. If you can, rescue a dog from the pound. You can save their life, and they can save yours. Laszlo died of old age last year, and this year I adopted Brando from the East Valley Animal Shelter.
Look in those eyes. Can’t you just smell the oxytocin?
PS - They tell me that cats also have some fine qualities.