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Love Story

We might yearn to tell our dogs why they can’t go on a walk while their injured foot heals, or to explain that we’re only leaving town for a couple of days, but I doubt that we’d have the pure, uncluttered connections we now enjoy if the relationship were burdened by language. In The New Work of Dogs, Jon Katz tells a story about a man who loved his dog because the dog was the only individual he didn’t have to talk to. Katz suspects that men often love dogs because dogs never ask them to talk about their feelings. Women love dogs so much, he suggests, because they see them as being so supportive. A study reported in The New York Times found that half of the female veterinary students surveyed said they got more emotional support from their dogs than they did from their husbands. Surely our perception that dogs are supportive is bolstered by the fact that they can’t tell us to shut up when we’re talking too much. The fact is, some dogs probably do give us unconditional love, but not all dogs do, and most dogs don’t every minute of every day. It just feels that way, given their expressiveness, their childlike cheerfulness, and bless it, their inability to communicate in words. Overall, it seems that what we can’t say to dogs is a small price to pay for what we gain from our wordless style of communication.

As if emotionality, expressiveness, a high degree of sociability, and the inability to tell us to shut up weren’t enough, there’s another important factor that influences our devotion to dogs. We humans have evolved to be protective and nurturing to big-eyed, dependent young mammals, and dogs elicit this state of mind from us with a force stronger than any hurricane. Like young children who stimulate our feelings of nurturance, dogs are nonverbal and have limited abilities. They can’t go to the store and buy food; they can’t open the door and let themselves out. If we left for work one day and never came home, they’d die, trapped and alone and unable to take care of themselves. In these ways they are the exact equivalent of young humans—nonverbal and dependent, wrapped in a fluffy, fuzzy package that says “I’m cute and cuddly and I need you.

Our feelings of parental love and nurturance are not to be sneezed at; they’ve kept primates like us going for millions of years. The parents of many animals walk away without a care once the eggs are laid or the sperm is transferred, but we shower our young with attention and care over a prolonged period. Lions may raise their young with affectionate licks and cuddles, but they’ll walk away and let their babies starve to death to save their own lives. Not so humans, dogs, or wolves: we’re obsessed with raising, nurturing, and protecting our young, and we’ll sacrifice our own lives to save theirs. Just the sight of young, helpless mammals can change our internal hormonal balance and increase the amount of oxytocin in our bloodstream. Although our complicated brains enable us to be rational and creative, underneath that complexity are ancient structures that generate primal reactions to big-eyed, fluffy mammals. As the writer and behaviorist Karen London so aptly said, “Dogs, the source of so much pure joy and warm comfort, are a reminder that perhaps the passion in our lives is too great to be contained within the bounds of humanity.” There’s great truth to that, and it’s based not on some neurotic need to replace our feelings toward people with feelings toward dogs, but on a deep-seated biological drive to nurture small, dependent things.

So there you have it, a perfect package of love, an animal whose looks and behavior leave many of us weak in the knees. Dogs elicit the love and the desire to nurture that we’re designed to feel toward young dependent mammals, and their expressiveness just ups the ante. The mere sight of them bathes us with the hormones associated with love and devotion. At the same time, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, we feel from them the kind of love we want from our parents, that no-holds-barred, “unconditional” love that psychologists tell us we’ve all been seeking since infancy. It’s a double whammy of epic proportions—we love them like children, and at the same time feel loved by them with the kind of pure, primal love that we needed when we were babies ourselves. Wow. Dogs get us coming and going. In truth, we’re the ones who are helpless.

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