WHAT MAKES DOGS SO SPECIAL AND SUCCESSFUL? LOVE.
Source:The Washington Post (Extract)
Posted: Aug 21, 2019
Research on dogs has exploded in recent decades. Universities have opened canine cognition labs, and scientists have probed dogs’ intelligence, behavior, biology and skills.
Clive Wynne, a psychologist and founder of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, has a new book that walks readers through the growing body of dog science. In it, he argues that what makes dogs remarkable is not their smarts, but their capacity to form affectionate relationships with other species – in short, to love.
Wynne spoke recently with The Washington Post about his book “Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Washington Post: Many dog owners will think, “Of course my dog loves me.” Why study this?
Wynne: It’s at least worth thinking about that what on the surface appears to be something in our dogs that people are happy to call love might – might – not have deserved that name. It could have been that our dogs were in some sense just faking it to get better treats. Ultimately, this is, to me, about trying to understand the secret of dogs’ success and what makes dogs unique.
Scientists in the first decade of the 21st century were mainly concerned with the idea that dogs have special forms of intelligence and social cognition that were unique in the animal kingdom. From the point of view of those of us that are in the science of studying dogs, the idea that it’s affection and not intelligence that’s the secret ingredient that makes dogs successful is quite a radical idea.
Q: What is love? Don’t we need a clear definition?
A: I avoid using the L-word in my scientific writing. We talk about exceptional gregariousness. We talk about hypersociability. When we’re doing science, we have to find terms that can be operationalized, or things that can be measured. We can measure whether a dog chooses to go for a bowl of food or its owner when it’s separated from both food and its owner for many hours. We can measure how hormonal levels go up in both dogs and their owners when they look into each other’s eyes.
Q: Anthropomorphism is frowned upon in science. How can you examine dogs’ ability to love without veering into anthropomorphic territory?
A: I’m on record as one of the vehemently anti-anthropomorphic animal behavior scientists. Anthropomorphism means ascribing human qualities to animals. And certainly love is something we know first through human experience. But I think that different species can have different forms of love.
Dogs fall in love much more easily than people do, and they also seem to be able to move on much more easily than people can. A lot of people have anxiety about the idea of adopting an adult dog. Wouldn’t the dog be pining for its original human family? But what evidence we have indicates that dogs can form new loving relationships much more easily and don’t seem to have the same level of trauma from being taken away from pre-existing loving relationships.
I’m not saying human and dog love are identical. I’m just saying there’s enough similarity between how dogs form strong emotional bonds and how people form strong emotional bonds that it’s fair enough to use the love word.
Q: So dogs’ intelligence – cognitive skills that make them uniquely able to understand us – is not their secret?
A: I thought it was a fair enough idea when I started studying dogs: Maybe dogs had developed special forms of cognition by living with people for 15,000 years.
The aha moment came when we got an invitation from Wolf Park in Indiana. Wolf Park has been hand-rearing wolves since 1974. When we’re testing wolves, we’re testing the wild ancestor of dogs, and it’s a crucial way to see what makes dogs unique, because we’re seeing what differences are there. We got around to having the wolves there tested in this very simple task where you point at something on the ground and see if the animal goes where you point. This was supposed to be something that was unique to dogs, and sure enough, the wolves were excellent at it. That was totally the aha moment – it couldn’t be how dogs were unique.
Q: Before we humans get all smug about our lovableness, you should probably explain that dogs don’t reserve their affection for people.
A: It’s not the case that dogs have special genes or special capacities to form relationships with humans. Dogs just have special capacities to form relationships with anything. Whatever they meet early on in life, they will then accept members of that species as potential friends later on.
Q: The final section of your book is a sort of call to action. What do you think we owe to dogs in return for their love?
A: Dogs gave up their free-ranging, roaming, hunting lives in order to hitch their wagon to ours, and I think that implies duties toward them. You know your dog needs feeding. Most recognize that dogs need exercise. The thing that upsets me is that people don’t give enough thought to the fact that a large part of what makes it so wonderful to live with a dog is your dog’s social nature. You come home and there’s at least somebody who’s happy to see you.
So I think the cruelest thing that we routinely do to our dogs is leaving them home for eight, 10, 12 hours a day. If your life is such that your dog is going to have to be left alone for more than four hours routinely, then you should reconsider whether you have a life that a dog can comfortably fit into.
But the thing about dogs is they make friends so easily. You can have a neighbor or a friend come, or you pay a dog-walking service. That’s part of my whole point here. Your tame wolf will probably not be interested in having a stranger come and take them out. But your dog will.