Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dogs, hormones and books - a guest essay by Anna Belfrage

One of my New Year resolutions is to become more open-minded and feature people whose views are radically different from my own.  Not long ago I interviewed Anna Belfrage, the author of the Graham Saga.  In addition to being an outstanding historical novelist, Anna Belfrage has another passion - dogs. As a confirmed crazy cat lady, I find it therapeutic for my soul to feature a dog lover.
Okay, so now there is scientific proof: dogs are good for you. Not, I hasten to add, as comestibles, but because their undemanding love does things to our hormones. Us dog people have known that for ages. The cat ladies and men of this world remain, I imagine, doubtful. But, as stated right at the beginning, now there is proof.

A Japanese scientific study has measured levels of oxytocin in people who look deeply and recurrently into the adoring eyes of their hounds. Turns out, the levels increase substantially, and as this hormone regulates such things as orgasms, maternal bonding, pair bonding and anxiety levels (lowers them), high levels are good for you, leaving you with a slightly goofy smile and a sensation of well-being, while low levels have you chewing your nails while asking, over and over again, “Why am I here?”

Obviously, cat people will smile aloofly at the above. They are rarely given to the nail-chewing thing, being somewhat more contained than us wildly tail-wagging dog people.

Whether cat or dog, I think all people who have pets can testify to the importance these (mostly) four-legged creatures play in our lives. An animal requires little and gives a lot, and the feel of warm fur under your hand gives us comfort, harkening back to times in the distant past when the pets – and here I’d argue this is mostly valid for dogs as neither cats nor rabbits have all that much of a protective streak – played a fundamental role in keeping us alive.

In my books, animals figure prominently. First and foremost, I have a number of horses I am very fond of, with names such as Samson and Ham, Moses and Aaron. Big and reliable, they carry my hero from one adventure to the other, but while Matthew Graham loves his horses and spends a lot of time currying and taking care of them, they don’t exactly sleep in his bed, or follow him around with big trusting eyes.

“No animal sleeps in our bed,” Alex Graham points out. It is far too much work to keep the bedlinen clean for her to allow a potentially dirty dog into their bedchamber. In compensation, she sneaks the dogs little treats, ensuring Daffodil and Narcissus, Viggo and Lovell Our Dog, regard her with bright eyes – the kind of look that stimulates her oxytocin levels mentioned above.
To write about dogs requires that you know something about them. A dog is not only a pile of fur with four legs and a tail attached – most dogs I know are distinct personalities, ranging from the very lazy that rarely does more than thump his tail against the floor when you enter, to the enthusiastic “oh-I-love-you-so-much-where-have-you-been-all-my-life” welcome that entails a lot of jumping about as the dog barrels into you the moment you step over the threshold. It might be you just left for five minutes to take the garbage outside, or maybe you’ve been gone all day – the welcome is as exuberant. This, of course, reflects on the dog’s average intelligence. They can’t tell time, people. But they love you no matter how dumb they are.  
I’m not sure cats love us just as unconditionally. As my dear hostess has expressed she is a cat lady, it is with some concern I must come clean and admit I have no personal relationship with a cat, nor are there cats in The Graham Saga. Well, there are cats, but only in the sense that there would be cats in a rural setting, but they remain nameless and anonymous. From my experience with cats, they don’t mind all that much about living their lives on the edge – they seem to view their humans as their pets, not the other way around. However, in my WIP, a cat has suddenly made it out of the blanket in which it was bundled, a green-eyes little thing named Kublai Khan. I am a tad worried about Kublai: he seems to have taken all that nine lives nonsense seriously, and any moment now I fear he might have stretched his luck too far. Please keep your fingers crossed for him.
The dogs in The Graham Saga are all of them working dogs. They fill the purpose of guarding the homestead, of scaring of intruders and coming along when Matthew and his sons go hunting. One of the dogs assigns himself the role of bodyguard to one of the Graham daughters – Viggo adores his little mistress and gladly risks his life for her. By all accounts, he should have died as a consequence, but I was too fond of Viggo for that to happen.
Daffodil is there to support Alex in a time of urgent need, Narcissus dies in the defence of his master, and Lovell Our Dog is a black and white hair-ball that enthusiastically takes on the job of First Guard dog. All of them play crucial roles in my story, a natural part of the cast of characters. And while they are banned from the beds, they are loved and fed and fussed over – happy dogs, most of the time.

Dogs are simple creatures. They need to feel utile, they need to feel part of the pack. Modern day pets are as loved and pampered as their forebears – sometimes even more – but in many cases they’ve been reduced to decorative elements in our lives, warm breathing reminders of a time when man and dog were far more joined at the hip than is possible today. I don’t think our dogs mind. In fact, they love us anyway. After all, that’s what dogs do best: they love us as we are. No wonder that adoring look in their dark eyes has the oxytocin levels spiking!


Anna Belfrage combines an exciting day-job as the CEO of a multinational listed group with her writing endeavours. When she isn’t writing a novel, she is probably working on a post or catching up on her reading. Other than work and writing, Anna finds time to bake (awesome carrot-cake) and drink copious amounts of tea, preferably with a chocolaty nibble on the side. And yes, now and then she is known to visit a gym as a consequence…

For more info about Anna, visit her website or her Amazon page. You can also find her on her blog.  

LINKS, in case the embedded ones fall off….

Anna’s website:

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