Book Discusses Why And How Your Dog Loves You

Review of Dog Is Love by scientist Clive Wynne, PhD
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2019

Clive Wynne’s new book Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You explores what makes dogs special. The book’s main point that “it isn’t their smarts but their hearts that makes dogs exceptional” and Wynne shares his personal journey from skeptic to proponent of this theory. The tale includes in-depth, entertaining explanations of many research studies (including a number of his own) that support the idea that dogs’ extraordinary capacity for love is what makes them unique unto themselves and in our lives. He asserts that 1) love is the cornerstone of our relationship with dogs and 2) that their great capacity for love has implications for how we act towards them and the great responsibility we have to them. It is both an informative read and a call to action.

It’s quite charming to read the firsthand account of the struggle of the author to reconcile his natural skepticism as a scientist and his non-emotive identity as a proper Englishman with something, to use his own words, “as squishy as love”. He muses that “love” as a scientific concept had to renamed as “hyper-sociability” and “exaggerated gregariousness” in the scientific literature, but it’s still love. It makes his narrative and the argument in it all the more compelling because he wasn’t biased towards the idea of dogs as love machines. The pull of the new idea was strong, but his approach as a scientist—exploring the new ideas with experiments and research into past work—is mixed in with his views as a dog lover—though of course “scientist” and “dog lover” have never been mutually exclusive.

A riveting section of the book details his involvement, along with his then-graduate student Monique Udell, in the cognition controversy related to whether dogs have the ability to follow human pointing gestures to find food. Other scientists had claimed that dogs could do so but that wolves could not, suggesting an evolutionary change had occurred in dogs since the time of their domestication. In contrast to previous work, Wynne and Udell found that wolves could follow a human point towards food if they had enough experience early in their lives with humans.

Wynne and Udell then conducted a variety of other experiments on wolves and dogs to search for major behavioral differences between the two that could have serious ramifications for our understanding of the evolution of dogs. Through many experiments, similarities between dogs and wolves were far more noteworthy than their differences. Then, finally, in one experiment they found an exception to this generality in a study using a stranger sociability test. Dogs are different than wolves in that they are so much friendlier and sociable towards humans that they don’t know.

The first section of the book lays out the evidence that what makes dogs and their relationships with humans unique is their capacity for love, and includes the personal and scientific events that led Wynne to the conclusion that “The essence of dog is love.” He writes of many of the experiments that together reveal that at so many levels (genes, hormones, brains), dogs’ bodies are set up to make strong emotional connections. The second section covers the questions that arose from that realization: How did the evolutionary history of dogs lead them to be so sociable and loving? How do individual dogs develop their loving tendencies?

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Dogs need certain experiences early on in their lives for their ability to love wholeheartedly to be expressed. Wynne explains how dogs’ experiences influence who they love as well as how loving they are, and discusses that not every dog acts lovingly towards people. Dogs who have no contact with people in their first few months of life do not act as the typical loving dogs we know. Dogs may be genetically primed for love in that their genes make it possible for them to love, but their genetic potential does not seal their destiny.

In Dog is Love, Wynne blends genuine caring about dogs in his personal life with the scientific rigor of studying them in his professional life into an enjoyable read full of stories and information about our best friends and the relationship we have with them. I highly recommend this fascinating book!

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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