Wynne: Dog is Love

Recently I read Dog is Love, Why and How Your Dog Loves You (2019), by Clive D.L. Wynne, an animal behavior scientist who specializes in dogs. Despite the loaded word “love” in the title, this is a science book about a search for hard evidence.

Dr. Wynne is a psychology professor at Arizona State University and director of their Canine Science Collaboratory. He’s written several other books about animal cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals (2001), Do Animals Think (2004), Evolution, Behavior and Cognition (2013).

The book is the story of Wynne’s search for exactly what it is that makes dogs special and how they got that way.

I think he hits the nail squarely on the head. My experiences with dogs — a tiny drop in a bucket compared to Wynne’s — certainly accord with his. Moreover, his thesis gives me a deeper understanding of my own attachment to dogs.

It seems odd to give a science book a Wow! rating, but (with the caveat this is no doubt influenced by my own love of dogs) I think I have to give one to Dog is Love. I can’t fault his science, I completely agree with his conclusions, and it confirms something cool about one of my very favorite things.

If you love dogs, I think you’ll enjoy this book. It’s available free if you have Kindle Unlimited. I read it free through the Cloud Library app.


The seeds of Wynne’s search lie in separate late 1990s research by Brian Hare in the USA and Ádám Miklósi in Budapest. The conclusion in both cases was that dogs possess a unique form of intelligence that makes them especially good companions for humans.

Brian Hare, who started with chimps, was exploring the gap between humans and other animals. Specifically, he was testing to see if the chimps understood pointing — something humans master early in life. As it turned out, the chimps didn’t understand pointing. Their responses were no better than random.

This struck Hare as odd, because he felt his dog at home could succeed. He tested the dog and discovered he did understand pointing. (Anyone with a dog can try this. Many dog owners already know it to be true.)

Next Hare tested hand-raised wolves in Massachusetts and found them just as clueless as the chimps. This seemed to show that, whatever dogs had, it wasn’t inherited from wolves but somehow an evolved trait.

Hungarian scientist Ádám Miklósi and his group independently found the same thing. They did similar pointing experiments with dogs as well as with wolves they hand-raised themselves. The results were the same: dogs got pointing; wolves didn’t. It seemed dogs had evolved a special form of intelligence they were born with.

This research, in 2002, gave Wynne a new career direction. He’d been studying marsupials in Australia, but a move to Florida called for a new path. He was fascinated by the idea that a canid species had evolved cerebral traits only seen in humans.


Very early on (we’re still in chapter one), Wynne and his research student,, Monique Udell, visit Wolf Park, a research facility in Indiana that’s been studying and hand-raising wolves since 1972.

The story of the wolves is engaging and delightful. Here I’ll just say, after a one-hour briefing session about how to act with wolves, with great trepidation, Wynne and Monique met some wolves. As the first wolf comes over, jumps up, and puts his paws on Wynne’s shoulders:

I just had time to think, “So long, sweet world,” before Renki licked me powerfully on each cheek.

I don’t know about you, but I would so love to have been in his shoes.

Anyway, long story short, the wolves understood pointing.

Tests with Renki.

Making it worse, as their studies progressed and they did work with shelter dogs, they found those dogs didn’t understand pointing. Until they’d had an hour of conditioning — then they aced it.

Then another scientist, Nathan Hall, with a bit of training, got bats to respond to pointing.

So the idea that dogs have a special inborn intelligence, based on their ability to understand pointing, seems disproven.

Responding to pointing is a learned skill many intelligent brains can learn.


There is a myth that wolves became dogs by hunting with humans. People who know about wolves will tell you that isn’t likely. Wolves are predators and enemies of other predators — they don’t hunt with them. And they aren’t likely to share.

Wynne relates a story about two men, Israeli filmmakers Yossi Weissler and Moshe Alpert, who wanted to use wolves they’d hand-raised to star in a documentary about how hunters had tamed wolves to help with hunting.

To raise funds, they made a promotional short film using two of these wolves. The short film looked great. When Wynne first saw it, he was amazed.

The reality was much different. The “pet” wolves had attacked and wounded the actor when he picked up the carcass. After treating the actor, Moshe restrained the wolves while Yossi, a former Israeli paratrooper, filmed from inside a car.

Wolves, even hand-raised, refusing to share a hunt is far more aligned with the reality. Domestication was not likely through hunting — if anything, that was an area where early humans and wolves were deadly competitors.

At one point, Moshe showed Wynne his scars from dealing with wolves. The older workers at Wolf Park can also show you their scars.


As is turns out, a very simple test, one Wynne learned from Mariana Bentosela, a researcher from Buenos Aires, demonstrates a striking result about dogs and humans.

A person sits for two minutes in the chair centered in an open area with a dog. The test, intended to measure sociability, is to see how much time the dog spends inside a one meter (three feet) radius of the person in the chair and how time much outside that circle.

Most dogs spend a significant fraction of the time close to a stranger. Dogs spend 100% of the time close if the person is their owner.

Wolves ignore strangers almost entirely and will briefly check in with humans they’ve known all their lives. Otherwise they tend to stay outside the circle.


A true scientist, Wynne is seeking data. For at least the first half of the book, he repeatedly speaks to his reluctance to accept the apparent conclusion. He questions everything.

He goes to Moscow to study street dogs, and he visits the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia to see the tame red foxes raised by Dmitry Belyaev:

I may have been a newcomer to fox cuddling, but this animal was determined to teach me. It gave little whimper-squeaks, wagged its big fluffy tail, and nuzzled into my neck.


They may look like foxes, but in a deep sense Belyaev had created a new beast, much more like a dog.

In fact, he compares the foxes to puppies in their eagerness.

He also visits John Pilley and his dog Chaser, from border collie stock, who knows the name of over 1,200 different toys.

There’s even a book John wrote.

Wynne, along with Pilley, tested Chaser’s ability, and it was exactly as advertised. The one mistake she made turned to be an error on the humans’ part (John misread a toy name Clive wrote).

But John worked three hours a day for three years with Chaser, so this was a dedicated effort on their part. (One might even call it loving.) However there are dogs with vocabularies of dozen, even hundreds, of words.


Wynne also explores the role of the hormone oxytocin in the relationship between dogs and humans.

Oxytocin plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, and childbirth. Studies have shown it seems to play a crucial role in cementing emotional bonds between people.

Takefumi Kikusui and his colleagues in at Azabu University in Tokyo have done studies showing that oxytocin levels spike in both humans and dogs when they look into each other’s eyes.

So, to the extent that chemistry affects our emotions and thoughts, to the extent that humans can be said to experience emotional love, it appears that dogs experience something very similar.

Dogs love us.


Although it turns out we’re not privileged in that. The truth is, dogs love. Period.

Dogs seem to have an inborn capacity to love whomever or whatever they imprint on early in life. Herd protection dogs love their flock of sheep or geese or chickens or pigs.

(Such dogs are explicitly raised with less human contact than most dogs to prevent them from imprinting much on humans. They do gets lots of early contact with their future charges.)

Interestingly, animal protection, and inborn trait, almost certainly predates animal herding, which required some selective breeding and which requires the dogs learn the skill.

Wynne and his dog Xephos, who is much mentioned in the book.

Wynne ultimately accepts what the evidence is telling him about dogs.

The last chapter, Dogs Deserve Better, addresses our relationship and responsibilities regarding dogs. They are quintessentially a product of our efforts, or at least of our existence, so we owe them a lot better than they often get.

The problem of dog shelters (let alone puppy farms) is horrific and heart-breaking. Dogs are creature of love — that is what they know. To mistreat them is an abomination.

I think I have always recognized this about dogs, and so my heart has always gone out to them. They are just innocent bundles of love, like perpetual infants. As alienated and misanthropic as I am, that’s from my experiences. Fundamentally, I love people and life just like dogs do. I get dogs.

There is a good reason that, when a storyteller wants to paint a villain as truly evil, they have them kill a dog. An unwritten rule in storytelling is: The dog always lives. (Independence Day is a canonical example.)


You may have noticed the book’s title is a play on the phrase, “God is Love.”

In their ability to love, accept, and forgive, they are rather a model of something noble, something we often ascribe to divinity (or at least capital G Goodness).

As someone who loves dogs right back, in large part due to these qualities, I’ve long gotten a big kick out of how “dog” is “god” spelled backwards — and vice versa. (At least in English. In Spanish, it’s “perra” or “perro” versus “Dios.” In German, it’s “Hund” versus “Gott.” And so on.)

With that language coincidence in mind, I leave you with the old joke about the insomniac dyslexic atheist lying awake at night wondering if there is a dog.

Stay loving, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

27 responses to “Wynne: Dog is Love

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And then there’s this:

    What does that say about P45?

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And my new pal, Bentley (with a big smile):

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I was glad you clarified that point about, well, pointing. My observation was that my last dog didn’t understand it. But I never made any concerted effort to train her to, so it makes sense. Although I’m surprised that many animals can learn it.

    Everything else fits with my own experience with dogs. Disney has a tendency sometimes to make us think that lots of animals are like dogs, but dogs are special. I don’t think it’s right to say we created them, but it is right to say that they evolved because of us. And I agree that we owe them in a way we don’t other species.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, some dogs, when you point, they just look at your hand. The shelter dogs were able to pick it up with an hour of training (albeit by people very experienced with dogs), so it likely just takes a bit of deliberate effort.

      There’s an informal intelligence test I read about a while ago. You place a treat under a blanket and see what the dog does. The really smart dogs will pick the blanket off the treat. Most dogs just paw at it until they get results. The dumb dogs will eventually give up and lay down. Every dog I’ve ever had or known well pawed at the treat until they got it. (Bentley actually ripped the blanket — she’s like me; she likes taking things apart.)

      What I meant by saying we “created” dogs is that we allowed them to frequent our midden heaps, perhaps even preferred then to rats or bears, which dogs would drive off. They may even, over time, have aligned with us more than with marauding wolves. I suspect humans quickly came to appreciate the presence of wild, but friendly, wolves, and that relationship just grew from that seed.

      Certainly not “created” in any deliberate sense, but equally certainly due to our existence. Out of the darkness into the light of the campfire. The only animal that’s ever happened to with us. It’s… amazing to me. A branch of wolves, still a huge threat to humanity, became our best pals.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Looking at my hand is pretty much what my dog did. I over interpreted that to mean that dogs in general couldn’t understand it, when it’s really just not natural for them. Although it sounds like it’s not natural even for chimps. Which means it’s likely not even natural for us.

        Interesting intelligence test. It reminds me of those experiments which tried to determine if dogs have metacognition. Although I’d imagine the results of that intelligence test are far less controvertible.

        Sorry. I didn’t mean my remark about us not creating dogs to be a counter point to yours. I was just musing on the fact that it seemed to just happen. You have to wonder if we’d have gotten the idea to domesticate other animals if we hadn’t had that first example, which mostly happened by accident. (Probably.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I agree: pointing isn’t natural for anyone. I suspect dogs pick it up especially fast because of their strong focus on us. Other animals aren’t as attached, don’t pay as much attention, so it takes them longer to connect the dots. Humans probably pick it up even quicker due to our brains plus our focus on fellow humans.

        One thing Wynne didn’t mention at all involves eye contact. I’ve read dogs look to the right (?) side of a human’s face, just as humans do, because that side is subtlety more expressive of our true feelings. (I can’t recall if that’s the right side or the left side, but humans and dogs tend to look at that side.) When dogs look at other dogs, they don’t do that. (I would guess they’re more focused on canine body language clues.)

        The level of cognition in dogs is one of my favorite speculations. I was never entirely sure with my dog, Sam, but walking Bentley has me convinced some dogs have a very good geographical map of the territory in their heads. Bentley seems to have a very good idea where she is, where other things are. I knew they had an amazing scent map and memory, but was never sure about how well they mapped that into physical space.

        Even more speculative is the degree to which they ponder things. They seem very in the moment with very little self-reflection or thought to the past or future.

        Heh. I may be over-sensitized to counter-point. I like your idea that dogs might have shown us the way towards domesticating other animals. You can almost see them working it out.

        I didn’t get into it, but although Wynne doesn’t see us hunting with wolves (as romantic as that sounds), he does see us getting those increasingly domesticated proto-dogs to hunt with us. By then they would have lost some of their size and attack skills, so while they easily outrun humans to find prey, they weren’t capable of bringing it down as wolves would. The proto-dogs were more vocal, so they held the prey at bay and alerted the humans who then came to kill the prey. And these proto-dogs would have a better understanding of their place in the group, not as alpha as wolves, so would allow the humans to take the carcass.

        Wynne suspects this coincides with the ice age declining and large forests springing up. Human eyes are great for distance and gave us an advantage on the plains (or ice). In those forests, we couldn’t see far, we can’t smell worth a damn, our hearing isn’t that great, and it was harder to move through the trees. The proto-dogs would have been very helpful in that situation. Smaller bodies meant they moved through forest easily. Their senses spotted prey. And everyone ate well that night. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        A primeval partnership hammered out over millenia. Our relationship with dogs goes deep.

        Interestingly enough though, after thinking on this since my last comment, it’s not the only case of us partnering with animals. I can’t recall details, but I read somewhere of a hunter gatherer culture relying on a certain species of bird to lead them to prey. After making the kill. they’re always careful to leave some for the bird to feed on afterward. If I recall correctly, the history of the partnership fades back into prehistory and is part of the h-g culture’s mythology.

        There are also plenty of examples of other species cooperating. Cleaner wrasse earn their name by cleaning parasites off partner species, although they have to be on their toes for clients who try to cheat, making them pretty intelligent as far as fish go.

        So our symbiotic relationship with dogs has evolutionary precedent. Doesn’t change our deep bond with them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I wonder if the birds were ravens or other corvids of some kind. Recently I read an article by a researcher who studies crows, and he was writing about how it’s hard to tell for sure what’s going on when we read their behavior. One story involved a guy living in a cabin in the woods who was alerted by a crow about a (bear? mountain lion? I forget) creeping up on him. The researcher pointed out the crow could equally have been leading the animal to the human. Crazy feathered dinosaurs. (A friend has a good tee-shirt: “The dinosaurs didn’t die out. They’re hiding in trees!”)

        There are also those little birds that clean the teeth of hippos. And even modern medicine, I believe, has been known to use maggots to eat dead flesh while leaving living flesh alone.

        But, as you say, we have a deep bond with dogs, an intellectual connection, that makes it unique.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On the bird, I’m not sure if this is the one I remember. (If so, I mangled the details.) But if not, it’s along the same lines.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    For those thinking about their own dog and pointing, I should maybe point out there are two kinds of pointing. I’d call them “here” pointing and “there” pointing.

    “Here” pointing is when you’re pointing at something that’s within inches. A simple test is to have two cups or bowls separated by three or four feet, one of which you place a treat under. You will have first shown the dog the idea of hiding a treat under a cup so it understands the basic concept. With the hidden treat the dog doesn’t know and you stand near both cups pointing to the one with the treat. Most dogs should pick this up very quickly.

    “There” pointing is much harder for a dog to learn. It’s when you point to something many feet away. “It’s over there,” versus “It’s right here.” It usually takes directed training to get a dog to understand pointing to something that’s not right next to you.

    One thing I always wanted to try — I’ve seen dogs trained to do this — is train my dog to go where I pointed. OTOH, most of my dogs have understood a “Shoo! Go away!” motion although that usually involves some kind of verbals, too.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      (I did train Sam to several non-verbal commands: Sit, lie down, and come here. Arm straight out with hand extended palm down. Arm pointing straight down with hand extended palm facing down. Patting chest with open hand. Right arm in all cases. Flat palm in all cases. She was very reliable with them.)

    • rung2diotimasladder

      Since the conversation has turned to pointing…I’m amazed that that’s even considered an intelligence test. I assumed they all understood pointing without being trained. Maybe whether they get it or not depends on the context and the human connection. What’s in it for them? How reliable are you?

      My big question is, why do they hate looking at themselves in the mirror? It’s not that they don’t recognize themselves. They definitely do (or at least Geordie does). They just don’t like looking at themselves. Geordie seems disappointed, almost disgusted, by his own image when we sit in front of the mirror together.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        As it turns out, dogs need at least some training, it’s not innate. The shelter dogs picked it up in less than an hour, and I believe the wolves learned it once their handlers focused on it. (I don’t know how long it took to train the bats.)

        It does seem dogs are especially quick at picking it up. Combination of their intelligence and their focus on us, I expect.

        Mirrors, ha! As a puppy, Sam found her reflection interesting for all of three minutes. Then she lost interest and never showed any again. Bentley sometimes looks in the mirror. Sometimes she looks at me in the mirror, although she seems vaguely puzzled by it all.

        Looks exactly like a dog, acts exactly like a dog, but it makes no sound and — most crucially — it doesn’t smell like anything! Has to be some weird ghost.

        If Geordie does look at his reflection, you could try the mark test. Try to put something on him without his really being aware of you doing it. See if he sees it in the mirror and reacts. (My understanding is dogs generally fail the mirror test. Maybe Geordie will be an exception!)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        The problem with the mirror test is that dogs don’t care what they look like. Think of all the crap we put on them; they don’t care. But I’m sure Geordie knows himself in the mirror, otherwise he would bark at it. In fact, he did bark at his own reflection a couple of times. One time he saw himself in the window glass (at night) and thought it was an intruder. When I stood behind him and waved my arms so that he could see my reflected image too, he figured out what was going on. It was pretty cute watching him look back and forth at me and then my reflection. Anyway, I don’t think it’s too hard for them to figure out what a reflection is. Scientists have a tendency to underestimate animal intelligence.

        Sam was probably just not interested in her reflection once she figured out, “Oh, it’s just me.” If they had no self-awareness, they’d have a hard time navigating our world. That said, it does sometimes take them a second to figure out what they’re looking at, whether it’s their refection or not, especially if they’re in new surroundings. The real test is to watch a dog go into a place he’s never been before with a huge mirror in it. He’ll probably run up to the mirror, pause for a second, sniff, then explore the rest of the room. (This would happen in a flash, it might not even seem he’s seen himself in the mirror…they take things in very quickly.) If he doesn’t recognize himself, he’ll stand stiffly in front of his image and bark. Putting a dot or mark on his fur probably isn’t going to make any difference to him.

        But you know, come to think of it, around Christmastime I put a flashing necktie on Geordie and had him look at himself in the mirror. Of course, he knew I was putting something on him that was like a collar, but he didn’t know it would light up! He loves lights, so he got pretty excited seeing his tie in the mirror. He just stood there wagging his tail and looking at it. But after a while he realized there was no game involved and he grew bored with it. I think for a dog to show even that much interest, they have to learn to love lights and playing games with lasers. During our neighborhood Christmas lights dog walk, Geordie was the only one interested—super interested—in the lights and decorations. The other dogs were more interested in each other.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You’re probably right about dogs not caring about a mark. That test is a bit controversial, anyway.

        It sounds very much like Geordie understands mirrors. My impression of Sam was more that she thought “that’s nothing” more than “that’s just me” although who can say. She wasn’t always the brightest of bulbs. Bentley definitely seems more in tune with the idea.

        The lights, too, you’ve obviously conditioned Geordie to lights. Sam sometimes gazed at airplanes, which I figured harked back to her Labrador genes. She probably thought they were ducks.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Funny that Sam looked at airplanes. Geordie doesn’t seem to notice them! That said, we assume dogs don’t notice things, but I suspect they take things in so quickly that WE don’t notice them noticing things. I’ve, um…noticed that. For instance, sometimes I’ll shine the laser light in Daddy’s hand, and he’ll count to the three and then “throw” the light onto the ground for Geordie to chase. Sometimes Daddy will keep saying, “Look Geordie, it’s right here!” without realizing Geordie (who’s looking expectantly at the ground) knows damn well where the laser is and has already moved on to the next step.

        BTW, you get really good at pantomime with these laser games. Oh look, here’s a fly! Look, it’s in my mouth! Look, I’m spitting it out! Look, I’m kicking it, catching it, chasing it, stomping on it, running away from it, tracking it up a wall, unsuccessfully reaching for it and whining about it, missing it, swatting it out of a curtain, splashing it around in the bathtub, letting it run up my leg while I stare at it in horror, etc.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The things we do to entertain our dogs! 😀 😀

        I could never get Sam to care about the laser pointer. She saw it but wasn’t interesting. Maybe I didn’t sell it good enough. 🙂

        I still have the laser pointer. If it works I should try it on Bentley.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Try it! My main tip is to turn it into a game of make believe…for us, more often than not it’s practice for hunting. Geordie’s not interested one bit if I just shine it on the ground while I sit on my duff. I have to actually engage, run with him, hide it somewhere, pretend to look for it, etc. Imagine you’re dealing with a rambunctious little boy who needs to blow off some steam and can’t entertain himself.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think I’ll see Bentley later this week, so I better look for my laser pointer!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        On the other hand, it occurs to me that 75 pounds of very muscular solid dog chasing a laser dot around the place might not be ideal… 😮

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Oh, right. That’s a good point!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        She’s a tough little gal, determined, and she doesn’t really know her own strength. A total sweetie, but got kind of a bull-in-a-china-shop thing going on.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just read an article about why dogs circle in place a couple of times before laying down to sleep.

    One explanation (that I’m not sure I buy) is it gives them one last chance to look around for predators. You’d think wild dogs would shelter for the night in more, well, sheltered areas with no sight lines, so I’m askance at that one.

    The one that makes sense is two-fold: It mats down the grass for their bed, and it rousts out any lurking snakes or vermin. I can totally see that one.

    In modern dogs, with their cushy beds, it’s just a leftover reflex, but kind of a cute one. (It’s also impressive how some big dogs can curl up into a small (energy-conserving) ball that seems like it’s 100% dog — no inner air space. I had a Great Dane like that; she could curl up on a really small mat.)

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