Dogs – How They Make Our Lives Whole

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Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole – Roger Caras. This is one of my favorite quotes about dogs. How do you feel about your dog? Is he perhaps your best friend, your ‘kid’, a family member, almost as important as other family members, or maybe more? What makes them so special? They waltz straight into our hearts with their cute little faces, their wagging tails, their pure love. Is that the whole truth? Because they love us? We crave love in everything we do. It is a normal human desire…..to love and be loved. Is it the same for our dogs? We certainly like to think so. They come and curl up in our laps because they love us. They get beyond excited to see us when we come home, because they love us. They like to give us kisses because they love us…..They give unconditional love like no other. A small infant or child does the same until they grow and suddenly form their own opinions and begin to disagree with us. They still love us, but not quite as unconditionally as our dogs. Sadly, you can treat your dog badly, never walk them, hit them, and they will still come back to you. Is that because they love you, unconditionally?

We like to anthropomorphize our dogs (attach human qualities to them). They know how to sit, they are just being stubborn right now,  and won’t. They know they did something wrong when we come in and see the pillow shredded on the floor. Their guilty look says it all! How many videos are there on YouTube about ‘guilty’ looking dogs who did something wrong….countless. Because we love our dogs so much, we almost forget that they are an entirely different species. They are similar to us in many ways, granted. They experience joy and pain just like we do. They are susceptible to touch. They can be taught to do so many amazing things that almost seem human-like (opening the fridge and bringing us a water or beer).

Let us not forget, however, that they are ‘only’ dogs. They do not speak our language. They have no idea how to live in our human world unless we teach and guide them. They know dog behaviors. They need food, water, sexual gratification, and want to avoid pain at any cost. That is it, basically. So when we say that our dog is ‘stubborn’ because she won’t do as told….don’t forget, she does do it at home, or sometimes when not distracted, or only when daddy says it because his voice is deeper and she knows he means it…..we are assigning a human quality to our pup. Dogs do not know how to be stubborn…they may be unmotivated, rather. They are eminent body language readers, and they watch our every movement, even the tiny muscular ones you didn’t think she would notice. If she only sits sometimes it is not because she solely does it when she wants to. It is most likely because she is not motivated enough, or

  1. you haven’t trained the behavior consistently

  2. it hasn’t been put on cue correctly, and as a result, she does not understand what ‘sit’ means

  3. the behavior hasn’t been reinforced (rewarded) enough (maybe you don’t pay up every time)

  4. the behavior has not been trained with distractions and in many different situations

Similarly, when our dogs know they did something bad and look ‘guilty’ it is not because they are capable of feeling guilt. What has happened is that she has learned, by association, that that particular behavior (shredding a pillow) usually elicits a very unpleasant response from you (shouting, for example), and as dogs are motivated by the avoidance of aversives, her ‘guilty’ look is often confused by appeasement. Dogs display this behavior in many situations when trying to avoid something uncomfortable. This is how they try to avoid conflict with other dogs or animals as well. Getting to understand your dog’s body language is an important skill to learn in order to speak ‘dog’ better.

So, in getting back to my question earlier – do dogs love us unconditionally? Obviously, science has not yet mastered the ability to read dogs’ minds, and as we cannot ask them directly, we will probably have to contend with the most rational explanation. This leads back to the fact that in order to survive, dogs need

  1. Food

  2. Water

  3. Sex

  4. To avoid conflict/pain

With that in mind, we may need to realize that while our dogs may love us, their reasons for loving us could be different from what we think. They are dependent on us, since they live with us in our human world, for the supply of at least the first two. The need for sexual gratification is somewhat dependent on us as well. Most domesticated dogs live in our homes and as such only have access to ‘stimuli’ when or if we say so. They look to us to protect them from conflict and harm. If we are the ones causing them harm, sadly they still come to us, and will use appeasement to try to avoid or minimize punishment. In cases where they are threatened by outside factors, if they don’t feel we are able to protect them, they will have to step up and use their way of defending themselves, which could be warning signals/growling/lunging/aggression.

Taking all these facts about dogs into consideration, is it then love or merely survival instinct at play? The most logical and scientific explanation is probably the latter. I am sure, however, we will still continue to anthropomorphize our dogs……probably because they are our best friends, and we need to feel their love. After all, those of us who prefer the company of animals to people cry more easily when our pets die than most human relations. Why? Probably because dogs are there for us unconditionally, they don’t judge or argue. They don’t care what we look like or if we act stupid. They provide smiles, laughter and love and most importantly…. they make our lives whole.