The Love of a Dog
“When the Man waked up he said, ‘What is Wild Dog doing here?’ And the Woman said, ‘His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always.” – Rudyard Kipling
I write a lot about my passion for hunting various wild animals and over the course of nearly 30 years spent in the outdoors I would like to think I have developed a pretty good understanding of animal behavior, or at least the behavior of the animals I hunt. For example, I can tell you that a loud hail call will almost always turn a flock of mallards. I also know that turkeys move into fields in a rainstorm and a jumped rabbit will travel in a large circle and usually return to the point where they were first kicked out. I have learned these things from observation and listening to the similar experiences of others, but I don’t have an intimate relationship with any of the animals I hunt (even though taking the life of an animal is a very intimate act). This contrasts sharply with the relationship I have had with the dogs in my life.
I come from a dog family. We always had dogs growing up…BIG dogs. Coon Hounds and German Shepherds and a big terrier mix named Charlie. As an adult we have had two Labrador Retrievers, a black lab named Scout who died far too young and a yellow lab named Murphy who is one of the great loves of my life. We also have a pitbull mix named Josie who came to us unexpectedly in the summer of 2012 and wiggled her way into our hearts. There have been cats too but I am not a cat person. I really don’t know how I ended up with them. Half-wild farm cats that often went feral and disappeared in the night. Two cats, Lola and Midge, that live with us now and who are really just acquaintances for me. So this is a dog story.
A great book came out last year called How Dogs Love Us, written by neuroscientist Gregory Berns. Some years ago he began informal work on something he and his colleagues called the Dog Project. Their goal was to use an MRI to begin mapping the canine brain and trying to understand how dogs’ brains responded to various stimulus. The book covers a lot of territory and Berns is honest that his sample population was tiny (2 dogs out of 700 million worldwide) but his conclusions are drawn from a long career in neuroscience. Several observations struck me as relevant to the topic of dogs and love and I share the first here:
“From an evolutionary perspective, dogs are incredibly successful. Their numbers speak to that. Given that dogs share their environmental niche with humans, their success must be a result of learning how to read us. Not just reading human behavior but, I believe, learning to read our intentions, which means that they have a theory of mind for humans. And that is exactly what we found in the Dog Project. So even though Callie and McKenzie were rarified representatives of the world dog population, what we found in their brains showed the defining characteristic of dogs: social learning. Their brains showed they cared about human intentions.
Proof of social cognition means that dogs aren’t just Pavlovian learning machines. It means that dogs are sentinent beings, and this has startling consequences for the dog-human relationship.”
This echos what many of us have seen with our own dogs. They are incredibly adept at reading our emotions, body language and intentions but as Berns points out, this isn’t just basic learning. It is understanding. We had a similar experience when we watched the way Murphy and Josie integrated with our family. Murphy was brought home as a puppy, at six weeks old. I had learned from my experiences with Scout and had done a tremendous amount of research about bonding with dogs, especially hunting dogs who will not just be pets but working partners in field. I relied on two books, The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete and The 10-Minute Retriever by John and Amy Dahl. The first is dedicated to bonding with your dog and advocates things like sleeping with one hand on their back and giving them full-body massages to create a personal connection (it’s not as creepy as it sounds). The second book is about training a retriever for field work and is more about being your dog’s leader than their friend. Labs respond well to both strategies and with Murphy I created a hybrid program that we followed religiously.
Murphy’s early days with us were about establishing myself as his primary caregiver. I fed him all of his meals and spent the most time with him while he was learning his name and the basic rules of the house. We went on long walks in the woods and he was my constant companion. When he was introduced to water I was the one the went in first and coaxed him in to swim with me. We bonded fast and this relationship has lasted. While Murphy is a beloved member of the family there is no doubt he is my dog. For years I attributed this to the success of our training program. Then Josie changed all of my thoughts on the subject.
Josie was a stray that wandered into our neighborhood in late June. I would see her occasionally when I left for work in the morning. We have big hearts when it comes to stray dogs and have captured a few and then paid a hefty price to keep them at the local Humane Society until they were adopted. Our neighbors took pity on Josie and lured her into their backyard one day. When we found out my wife saw her chance at getting a dog of her own. We fostered Josie for about a week and then decided to give her a ‘forever’ home. 18 months later we are so happy with our decision. Josie is the sweetest dog you could ask for and if she has a willing recipient she will lick your face until you are forced to tap out.
What was completely different about our experience with Josie is that we followed none of the same strategies we employed with Murphy. We just opened our hearts to her, showered her with attention and she began to bond with us. I still contend I was no less affectionate than my wife but somehow Josie knew who she was intended for. While Josie is affectionate with all of us, she and my wife are now inseparable. As I write this Josie is laying next to my wife on the couch, head on her lap and when we go to bed she will probably crawl under the sheets to sleep at my wife’s side. No one taught her this, she just figured it out. Two completely different approaches with equal results. The only similar variable I can point to is the amazing capacity of a dog to understand the humans in their lives.
More from George Berns:
“The defining trait of dogs, therefore, is their interspecies social intelligence, an ability to intuit what humans and other animals are thinking. Wolves do this to hunt prey. But dogs evolved their social intelligence into living with other species instead of eating them. Dogs’ great social intelligence means that they also have a high capacity for empathy. More than intuiting what we think, dogs may also feel what we feel. Dogs have emotional intelligence. Just like people, if dogs can be happy, then surely they can be sad and lonely.
Throughout the Dog Project, I had been struck by how perfectly dogs and humans complemented each other. Humans, even with our powerful brains and capacity for abstract thought, are still slaves to our emotions, which dogs will pick up on and resonate with. And the most powerful emotion of all is love. Despite the complexities of human relationships, the fundamental attribute of love is empathy. To love, and be loved, is to feel what another feels and have that returned. It really is that simple. If humans do this with each other, it seems perfectly natural for us to do it with animals.”
Skeptics will say that we anthropomorphize our pets and this thinking has merit. Pet owners will often spend more o and swear they can understand their dogs’ thoughts and actions when this is almost always a supposition. But there is strong evidence to support the notion that dogs do read our emotions and respond accordingly. As Berns says, this empathy may be the basis for something we can fairly call love.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.