Scientists have been taking another look at what goes on inside a dog’s head when they interact with us hominids. The question is not only how smart they are, or even how well they communicate with people and read our signals, but also what kind of emotional bonds they form.
People sure do love dogs. But do dogs really love us back?
They often seem like they do, but maybe that’s all just kind of an act. Maybe they’re just smart enough to have figured out that showing us what we interpret as affection is the best way to secure a steady diet, if not a regular spot on the couch. Also, humans have a strong tendency to anthropomorphize nearly any creature. Just take a look at the latest Disney movies. Even trees can talk in the human imagination.
Now, Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University, is reporting evidence that doggie affection could be the real deal. He is the author of a new book, Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, and the subject of a long cover story a few weeks ago in the science pages of The New York Times.
Wynne argues that domestic dogs are genetically hardwired to exhibit “hypersociality” — a pronounced tendency to form interspecies emotional bonds.
Dogs have “an abnormal willingness to form strong emotional bonds with almost anything that crosses their path,” Wynne told The Times. “And they maintain this throughout life. Above and beyond that, they have a willingness and an interest to interact with strangers.”
Dogs aren’t particularly “smart,” he and other researchers say. They aren’t such tricky devils that they can fool us into thinking they love us with a lot of phony tongue-lolling and tail-wagging. Experimental findings by Wynne and other researchers suggest that domestic dogs are special in large part because of what we might as well call their emotions. More precisely, dogs, unlike wolves or even great apes, seem to have evolved an incredible ability to form attachments with other species, which humans nurtured once we realized dogs were useful to have around.
Let’s not read too much into this. The research continues. We don’t really know what goes on inside a dog’s head. After all, it’s hard enough to know what’s inside a person’s head. I have always been skeptical of those who assign human emotions and thoughts to animals. But in view of the new research, I think it’s fair to say that when a dog shows what we interpret as “love” for a person, it just might be the real thing.
Our dog, Queen Beatrix, showed a lot of love for everybody in the family, but especially Marieke. I always figured this was mostly because Trixie came to realize that Marieke was the one who usually delivered the food, went on long walks, ran on the beach, tolerated the muddy paws, set up the bedding, rolled the car windows down.
When Marieke went off for a few weeks on a trip to Egypt, Trixie certainly acted as if she had lost the love of her life. No interest in much of anything. The dog always had a charming way of “smiling,” showing her teeth while moving her head back and forth like a vintage doggie bobblehead. No smiling when Marieke was gone.
Soon after Marieke returned from Egypt, it became clear that something was different now. Trixie no longer smiled for anybody. She was unable to keep her dinner down most days. She was unable to walk more than a few steps. All the things she loved to do — long walks at Heron’s Head Park or Ocean Beach, in particular — were out of the question. She couldn’t make it down the steps. She was losing weight after years at right around 50 pounds.
She looked as weak and profoundly sad as a dog can look. So we took her to the vet again, talked things over, and decided it was time to let her go. She was 18.
Trixie had a smiling and happy life, healthy the whole 16 years we had her around, never really sick except for the time she ate most of a chocolate birthday cake we had left too close to the edge of the counter, requiring a stomach pump.
And I think it’s fair to say, scientifically speaking, that Trixie loved Marieke, right to the end.
Carl T. Hall is a longtime union organizer in San Francisco who is now a co-owner of Word. A Café, now open for business in the Bayview Neighborhood. Readers can pick up copies of Bay Woof there, too.
Main article photo by: Photo of Queen Beatrix, aka Trixie, courtesy Carl T. Hall