Investigating sex differences in the role of stress and hormones on affiliative behavior by people was the goal of a recent study. For anyone interested in the influence of hormones on behavior, the results are exciting, but it’s the dog angle that’s most noteworthy to me.
The study measured people’s affiliative behavior towards their dogs after victory or defeat in an agility competition. (A qualifying score of 85 or better was considered a victory. Scores below 85 were classified as defeats.) It’s gratifying that the researchers recognized the truly competitive nature of canine agility and its usefulness for studying reactions to victory and defeat. The main finding was that men and women exhibit different patterns of affiliative behavior based on whether they experienced success or failure, but they did not show different amounts of affiliative behavior overall.
One specific finding was that after defeat, women were more affiliative towards their dogs, but that men showed the reverse pattern—more affiliative behavior after victory. Additionally, the higher their cortisol levels (associated with defeat), the more affiliative behavior the women showed, but men responded to higher cortisol levels with lower levels of affiliative behavior. Their conclusion is that affiliative behavior is a sign of shared celebration for men, but of shared consolation for women. (It’s not clear how this impacts people’s relationships with their dogs as that was beyond the scope of this study, but I would LOVE to see further research that explores that question.)
Since the paper is written mainly for scientists concerned with the role of social stressors and hormones on affiliative behavior rather than for people interested in dogs, they had to explain what agility is and make the case that it is truly competitive. They wrote, “As a rule, contestants take these competitions very seriously,”—an obvious understatement.
With their choice to study human affiliative behavior in the context of agility, the authors demonstrated the ever- increasing recognition of the importance of dogs in people’s lives.