Do Dogs Get a Runner’s High? You Bet
Published on April 06, 2012
You’ve probably heard of or experienced “runner’s high.” It’s a powerfully positive mood that typically follows a long, hard run. You feel on top of the world, ready to face any challenges. In fact, you often feel so good that you can’t wait until your next run.
That runner’s high is an awesome emotion — and one of the reasons why I love endurance sports. Well, it turns out that your dog experiences the same feelings.
Run, Rover, Run!
A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that humans and dogs share the release of powerful, mood-altering chemicals after running. Researchers at the University of Arizona compared species that evolved as long-distance hunters and gatherers — namely humans and dogs — with more sedentary ferrets (they spend 14 to 18 hours a day snoozing!) to see if there was a difference in the brain compounds associated with the runner’s high.
They ran and walked each test subject, measuring before-and-after blood levels of endocannabinoids, the neurochemicals believed to be a major reason behind that runner’s high. If that word looks familiar to you, it’s because endocannabinoids are the body’s natural version of the active component in cannabis or marijuana. Now you understand the “high” part.
The researchers evaluated 10 humans, eight dogs and eight ferrets. They compared endocannabinoid (eCB) anandamide levels before and after walking or running on a treadmill for 30 minutes.
In the graph at left, the white bars represent pre-exercise anandamide, while the black bars indicate post-fast run levels. You can see that both humans and dogs experience a spike in the pleasurable brain chemicals following a high-intensity run. Ferrets not so much.
Interestingly, the same surge in pleasurable potions wasn’t observed after the 30-minute treadmill walks in any species. It really is a runner’s high, not a “walker’s buzz.”
How Evolution Played a Positive Part
The runner’s high is an important evolutionary tool because it encourages certain species to push harder, run longer or search farther. Even if you’re tired or hungry, you need to keep going, and then you have to do it all over again. If there was no reward system for these grueling efforts, chances are that humans would have been replaced at the top of the food chain by bears — or my cats.
Many endurance athletes have a hard time recollecting specific pain or suffering during long events, which is probably similar to the amnestic effect that the hormone oxytocin has on childbirth. It’s been said that if women could remember the pain of childbirth, they’d never have another child. I’m guessing that’s why I continue to do Ironman events, and why my forefathers got up each morning and set out to find food and avoid death.
Since man and dog co-evolved, it was beneficial that we both “enjoyed” roaming farther and hunting harder. We are a perfect pair when it comes to collaborating in the wild. To me, this study simply validates why dogs became man’s best friend and humans became cat’s best servant.
Bottom Line: Exercise Is Good for Your Dog’s Brain and Body
I’d like to point out one other insight from this study. As we’ve taken ourselves and our dogs out of the natural environment and become a nation of couch (and lap) potatoes, we’ve also altered our brain chemistry.
This study is a small part of a larger body of work over the past 20 years that clearly concludes daily aerobic activity is essential to good health. More important, this research supports the results I’ve had helping behaviorally challenged pets: If your dog is experiencing common behavioral problems, increasing his daily activity is often what this doctor prescribes.
Exercise improves behavior by modulating all three of the brain’s major neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. No drug can do that. We’re now learning how exercise impacts a host of other brain chemicals that keep us, as well as our dogs, emotionally stable and mentally sharp. Before I reach for a prescription pad for a problem pet, I always analyze whether or not exercise might be a part of the solution.
As warm weather approaches, do yourself a favor and take your dog for a brisk walk. If you can, go for a run. Your brain will appreciate it.