For the longest time, nobody wanted to study dog behaviour. To biologists, dogs weren’t really animals but a human creation, like Frankenstein’s monster. To the psychologist, dogs were animals alright, but with nothing to recommend them over smaller cheaper beasties like rats and mice.
Only vets had any interest in dog behaviour, but their concern was mainly limited to avoiding getting bitten. The minds of dogs were a mystery no scientists cared about.
All of that changed with a bang at the end of the 20th Century. Suddenly everyone was interested in canine cognition. Studies proliferated on dogs’ amazing ability to follow what people are up to.
Leaders in this new field proposed that the astonishing success of dogs in human society was due to what they called “human-like social cognition”. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, dogs had evolved an ability to understand people which was quite unique in the animal kingdom.
Early on in my own studies on dog behaviour I earned myself the label of the “Debbie Downer” of canine cognition because I couldn’t believe that dogs have unique skills in reading human behaviour.
It isn’t that I don’t believe dogs living as pets aren’t exquisitely sensitive to what their people are doing – I know just how stunningly attuned to their human a dog can be. My problem is that I don’t believe these skills are unique to dogs.
They are not even unique to domesticated animals. We found hand-reared wolves that were very sensitive to human actions, and even bats reared by people (not a great idea, by the way) can be responsive to human intentions.
So, if it isn’t something in their intelligence that makes dogs so well-suited to living with people, what can it be?
It was acquiring a new dog, after too many years without canine companionship, that nudged me to a new understanding of what makes dogs special.
Our new dog, Xephos, wasn’t clever, but what she lacked in intelligence she more than made up for in her sweet demeanour. She is the most affectionate of beasts. She shows this in the enthusiasm of her welcomes when I have been away, in seeking me out when we are home together, and in thousands of other small gestures throughout each day.
It was Xephos who taught me what almost every dog owner already knows: It is their unbounded capacity for love, not any distinctive form of intelligence, that singles dogs out. Love is dogs’ secret superpower.
In Dog is Love: The Science of Why and How Your Dog Loves You I explain how, once I knew what I was looking for, I found evidence for dogs’ capacity for love everywhere.
My collaborators and I have identified how the exceptional drive to form strong emotional attachments in dogs is linked with genes that, when mutated in people, lead to a very rare disorder called Williams-Beuren syndrome.
One of the hallmarks of this syndrome is what physicians call “exaggerated gregariousness.” In other words, an extravagant propensity to form warm emotional bonds – just like we see in our dogs.
Scientists in Atlanta, Georgia, have identified, through the use of painless brain scans, how the reward centres in dogs’ brains light up when they are reminded of their beloved human.
Researchers in Tokyo, Japan, have shown how levels of the “love hormone” oxytocin rise up in both people and their dogs when they look into each other’s eyes. These and many other studies show us how love is programmed into the essence of a dog’s being.
Some might say that a science that affirms what many people already believe about their dogs is a waste of time. But I am convinced that there is an immense value in bringing a scientific certainty to what for most of us has just been an interminable debate down the pub: Is it their smarts or their hearts that makes dogs such a success in the modern world?
Knowing that dogs have real social needs changes our understanding of what dogs need from us. We must recognise that what gives us such pleasure in our dogs’ company must be respected and reciprocated. It is cruel to leave a dog alone all day while we are out at work and play. These exquisitely social beings cry out for company.
Dogs have given up the powerful hunting skills of their ancestors and pledged themselves to us with loving affection. It is the least we can do to reciprocate their trust that we will do the right thing by them and fulfil the modest needs they have.