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.
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.
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.
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 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!