In the United States alone consumers will spend an estimated .4 billion on their dogs over the next 12 months on services ranging from spa vacations to obedience training to birthday parties. Even in China, pet dogs have become big business as a rising urban middle-class discovers the unique pleasures afforded by canine companionship.
The 15,000-year-old friendship between humans and dogs may currently represent a commercial bonanza for some, but if anything can survive the crushing effects of overzealous marketing, chances are it will be this most enduring love affair.
Why do we love dogs so much?
“It’s an important question to ask and I think it’s been under-examined…We trivialize our love of dogs to some extent, but if you look at events like Hurricane Katrina for example, 60 per cent of people said they wouldn’t evacuate because of their pets so that means that hundreds of people died because of their pets and that’s not new. Josephine wrote that she loved her dog more than she loved Napoleon…I think our love for dogs goes beyond the traditional explanation—unconditional love, [even though] there is great truth to that. We do feel this great unconditional love from our dogs, however,” says Dr. Patricia McConnell, celebrated dog behavior expert and zoology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Although many dog owners probably feel as if they’re communicating with their pet pooch in very profound ways, Dr. McConnell, author of several books including For the Love of a Dog and The Other End of the Leash thinks that when it comes to our relationship with dogs, silence is golden.
“Dogs are very forgiving and the fact that we can’t talk to each other means we don’t have to worry about hurting each other’s feelings and I actually think that’s really important about why we love dogs so much—we can’t talk to them and they can’t talk back to us. So even if they’re not feeling unconditional love at any particular point in time, we don’t necessarily know it.”
Dogs are good for us in ways that transcend the obvious—that big greeting at the door not only lifts your spirits, it actually changes your physiology, says Dr. McConnell, who reports that it can actually alter blood pressure and heart rate to our benefit.
“…they’re such joyful animals and we know that emotions are contagious and so you look at a happy dog and feel happy.”
According to Dr. McConnell who co-hosts a syndicated radio show, Calling All Pets, we’re hardwired to nurture dependent baby mammals—the same inherent tendency that makes us such good parents to our own children.
So for besotted owners who persist in referring to their dogs as “fur babies” well, maybe they’re on to something.
“Even if dogs aren’t babies they still are completely dependent on us—if we didn’t come home our dogs would die. And they’re non-verbal and they’re cute and fuzzy and we respond to them instinctually as if they were baby mammals and this innate sense of nurturance that we have carries over to dogs so we feel like they love us all the time and we love them in the way we’re hardwired to do.”
Additionally, dogs and humans share a number of commonalities including the way we express emotion.
“Their bodies change the same way we change when they’re disappointed, they’re scared, they’re happy, their facial expressions change and emotions are contagious. You’ve got a happy dog and so you feel happy. They’ve got us coming and going and coming. I call it the perfect storm. They’ve got us three ways from Sunday. No wonder we love them so much—we’re the perfect victims,” says Dr. McConnell who has four border collies and a Great Pyrenees.
Dogs and people are distinguished by their universal love of play, which is rare in adult mammals.
“I’ve always been bemused by the fact that both dogs and people seem to be the only species that are obsessed with round objects…just watch TV and see how many minutes are spent on war and peace and world affairs and how many are spent on the fate of golf balls…our love of play and the way we play is important. And we have very similar social structures, we’re highly social, more so than almost all other mammals…you will see dogs and wolves sacrifice their lives for members of the group and you see that very rarely among other mammals…” Dr. McConnell points out.
We also share a similar social structure—wolves and humans hunt cooperatively, social status is relevant and jobs are an important feature of the way we divide ourselves, easily assuming roles within the group.
Despite the extended length and scope of the bond between humans and dogs the origins of our relationship remain mired in controversy and speculation—with no one able to lay claim to the definitive explanation.
Dr. McConnell points to the “very reasonable hypothesis” that dogs were selected from a subset of relatively bold wolves that created a new ecological niche by foraging around the garbage dumps of human settlements.
“[It’s]more reasonable than the old-fashioned traditional man-the-hunter explanation—hunting with wolves, makes no sense. Animals that hunt compete with each other. They don’t wake up together although, that said, it is true you will see associations of animals, for example, ravens and wolves have a very tight relationship. Ravens follow wolves and are very keen to look for a wolf kill and clean up the scraps as soon as the wolf leaves, so it’s very possible that wolves followed humans around the way that ravens follow wolves so there was a kind of a relationship to our mutual predation but I don’t think we were cooperating together.”
Chances are that puppies and wolf cubs held the same appeal to our prehistoric ancestors that they do for us.
“I think our innate nurturance toward baby mammals—at some point that had to play a role,” posits Dr. McConnell. “We know that in non-industrial societies, hunter-gatherer societies, even when their food is a highly limited resource, the women and children keep pets, they keep animals of all descriptions.”
The resulting shared history appears to have genetically equipped the dog to understand what we are trying to communicate—recent studies show that dogs even exceed chimpanzees when it comes to interpreting our signals.
Dogs, it would seem, understand us even when we don’t always understand one another.
Smarter than the Average Bear:
In his book The Intelligence of Dogs—Canine Consciousness and Capabilities, internationally renowned Canadian dog expert Dr. Stanley Coren used information compiled from dog obedience judges to rank various breeds according to their intelligence:
The Most Intelligent:
And the dumbest—at least according to the survey—well, let’s just say the Pug, the Shi Tzu, Borzoi, Bull dog, Basenji and Chow Chow will probably not be lining up to receive their Nobel Prizes any time soon. The dubious distinction of being the least intelligent canine belongs to the Afghan —but then again, who needs brains when you look like that?
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd
- Golden Retriever
- Doberman Pinscher
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Labrador Retriever
- Australian Cattle Dog
Questions of intellect aside, dogs, like humans, need parameters—though the trend to attain dominance over your dog is, “…profoundly misused and misunderstood,” comments Dr. McConnell.
“Dogs need benevolent leaders. You are the one who understands the world and protects them from it, like children, they are completely dependent…It’s not about dominance. You don’t try to attain dominance over your children, but you shouldn’t spoil them and give them everything they want, every second of the day.”