Chapter 1: Bonded CHAPTER 1 BONDED
I walk down the sidewalk with my dog Finnegan and catch a reflection of us in the polished marble of the building we’re passing. Finn lightly prances, perfectly in step with my long stride. We are part of the same image, connected by much more than the leash that holds us together. We are dog-human. And the magic is in that hyphen between us.
Once a dog has your heart, he has your heart forever. There’s no getting away.
Scientists call this the dog-human bond. We keep dogs and we are also kept by them. We love dogs and we are loved by them. (At least we think we are. Check out Chapter Ten if you’ve ever wondered.)
Almost everything a dog does strengthens the connection between that dog and her person. Maybe your dog is greeting you at the front door with a wildly wagging tail. Or maybe she’s chewing up your favorite stuffed animal. But she’s still and always will be your dog.
Dogs have been by our side for thousands of years. Before human beings were even living in cities, we were living alongside dogs.
When early humans domesticated wolves, they began to change what wolves are. They brought wolves into their homes and took care of them because they needed animals who would help them hunt, guard their possessions, or herd the animals they depended on for milk or meat or wool. As people did this, over many years, they altered wolves for good. They didn’t know it, but they were beginning to create dogs.
Today, whenever we decide to buy, adopt, or rescue a dog, it’s the start of a relationship that will change us. Having a dog changes what we do in a day—a dog needs to be fed, walked, played with. Having a dog changes our minds and our hearts. It has even changed the course of our species.
Dogs in Science
The fact that dogs and humans have lived together for so many years has led to something new—scientists who research dogs. That’s what I do. My job is observing and studying dogs. Not petting them; not playing with them; not looking at them fondly. Many people who want to join me in the work that we do at the Dog Cognition Lab are very disappointed to find out that we do not keep dogs here. We don’t pet or even touch puppies as part of our jobs! (I’m disappointed about that too. It’s always hard to keep myself from greeting and petting every new dog I meet in my lab.)
In fact, when we run experiments, any researchers in the room have to make themselves completely boring to the dogs we are studying. In our work, we try to answer questions like whether the dogs in our experiments can sniff out a small difference in two portions of food, or whether they prefer one smell to another. But as we’re doing that, we can’t smile admiringly at the dogs. We don’t coo over them. We don’t chatter with them or comment on what they do. And no sharing of adoring looks with dogs or tickling them under the chin. Sometimes we actually wear sunglasses so dogs cannot see our eyes. If a dog looks at us, we may turn our backs. In other words, we fall somewhere between acting like trees and acting inexcusably rude. (At the end of the study, we can finally smile at and coo at and tickle them.)
We are not trying to be unfriendly. But it’s hard enough to understand what dogs are really doing without becoming part of what they’re doing. Since one tool of animal-behavior research—eyes—is something we use all the time, it can be hard to see what’s actually happening, rather than what we expect to see.
Still, humans are natural observers of animals. For most of humankind’s existence, we had to be. To stay away from predators or to hunt prey, we kept a close eye on any creatures that were around. Watching animals carefully could be the difference between having dinner and being dinner.
I study dogs because I’m fascinated by them. But the things I discover about dogs tell me some things about humans, too.
Dogs and Their People
In the lab we gaze at our dogs and wonder about the ancient humans who met wolves on their way to becoming dogs. We ask what dogs feel and how dogs think, and if it’s similar to human feelings and thoughts. We wonder how living with dogs has changed human beings. We try to figure out what dogs see when they look at us.
As I study dogs, I find myself seeing their owners as well. (By the way, I call us all “owners” sometimes in this book, since that’s the legal term for our relationship with dogs. But I think of myself as my dogs’ “person,” not their owner.) The ways that people choose, name, train, raise, treat, talk to, and see our dogs deserve more attention. When we take a careful look at how we live with our dogs, we’ll notice a lot of things that are odd, surprising, even disturbing—and contradictory. For instance, we sometimes treat them like animals and we sometimes treat them like human animals. We feed them bones and take them outside to pee, more like nonhuman animals. But we also dress them in raincoats and celebrate their birthdays, almost as if they were human beings. We take some breeds of dogs and trim their ears into upright triangles so that they look more like wolves or foxes—wild animals. But in making other breeds we have created animals with flattened faces to make them look more like humans.
Similarly, when it comes to the law, dogs are property, objects that can be owned, just like a chair or a backpack or this book in your hands. But at the same time, we know that dogs can do things that a chair or a backpack or a book cannot. Dogs can want, choose, demand, feel. They share our homes and often our sofas and our bed. They are family, but they are still possessions.
We love our dogs for who they are—quirky, funny, adorable individuals. We also think of dogs as members of a breed, or as having purebred parents, that should all appear and act exactly the same. But by breeding dogs to look how we want them to look—big, tiny, long-haired, flat-faced, shaggy, wrinkly, bald—we’ve created short-nosed dogs who cannot breathe properly, small-headed dogs who have too little room for their brains, and giant dogs who cannot bear their own weight.
Dogs have become so familiar to us that we’ve stopped looking at them closely. We talk to them, but we don’t listen to what they’re telling us. We live with them, but we don’t see them for who they are.
And that’s surprising, because we love dogs for being dogs. We invite them into our lives and our homes because we want to have an animal who lives with us, who adores us, who can be part of our lives while still being not exactly like us.
More and more people spend their daily lives away from the animals living in the world around us. We call the animals who wander into our yards or under our back porches nuisances. Animals in our houses that we haven’t invited? Pests. The animals that we have invited inside? Part of the family, but also something we own. Dogs, part of the special category of animals that we love and live with, can connect us to the animals that surround us. They can remind us that we are animals too.
I find myself reflecting on the animals we live with and how they think about us. In this book, we’ll find out more about the bond that connects us to our dogs. As we look carefully at the ways we treat, think about, and love dogs, we can learn to appreciate dogs for the animals that they are. We will also discover how some of our ideas about dogs arose.
We may even come up with new ideas about how we live with dogs today, and how we might live with dogs tomorrow.