By Bruce Fogle
The look of love: Can dog's open up their hearts like humans?
Some years ago I wrote an article for this newspaper about my feelings on having to put down my golden retriever, Macy.
Your response was overwhelming, with many letters and emails expressing gratitude that an old vet like me, and a man at that, had talked openly about the personal pain I felt when my pet’s life ended.
One of those who had clearly read my musings was my client Michael, the owner of Molly, a collie-cross who suffered irreversible kidney failure last autumn.
‘You know how I feel, Bruce,’ he said when I arrived at the family home to give Molly a lethal injection. His wife Tricia stayed in the next room and Michael stayed with me — the opposite of what usually happens when I end an animal’s life. In my experience, men find it more unbearable to see their pets die.
As Michael bent over his old girl and I injected the overdose of barbiturate, his tears dropped like tiny pearls on her still face and he said something which got me thinking. ‘You know Bruce, she loved us as much as we loved her.’
Scientists find this idea hard to handle. They say only animals with ‘higher emotions’ — humans — are capable of love.
But Michael’s words came back to me this week when I read newspaper reports claiming the dog has been man’s best friend for far longer than anyone imagined. They described how archaeologists digging in Siberia and Belgium found two canine skulls dating back 33,000 years.
Unlike their wolf ancestors, who had long narrow jaws and large teeth, perfectly suited for grabbing their prey and tearing its meat off the bone, these creatures had far more blunted features with smaller teeth.
This indicated they were domesticated long before the archaeologists’ previous estimate of 15,000 years ago. The researchers suggest that, apart from using these early dogs as an emergency food source or to follow animal scent trails, our ancestors also valued them as companions — just as we do today.
And I believe the bond between our two species has been so enduring because dogs are as capable of loving us as we are of loving them.
This is not the wishful thinking of a sentimental old dog-lover. Studies have shown that when dogs are in physical contact with their owners, their brains release the ‘pleasure chemical’ dopamine in exactly the same way as our human brains do when we feel happy and relaxed.
Of course, scientists argue that dogs learn to use all their ‘cute’ emotional displays — including wagging tails, dropped ears and lips drawn back in a ‘smile’ — simply to get rewards such as attention, treats and access to the great outdoors.
The proof, they say, is that if our dogs were handed over to new owners they’d use exactly the same techniques on them. I find this argument rather silly.
Like all dog owners, I have been subjected to the big brown eyes routine. But the fact that dogs exhibit cupboard love in the hunt for a biscuit, doesn’t mean that they are not capable of purer forms of that emotion, too.
After all, scientists are happy to recognise different types of aggression in dogs: sex-related, territorial, pain-induced and so on.
So why shouldn’t they recognise dogs also feel different kinds of love — such as love of games, love of possessions, love of family, love of us?
'Studies have shown that when dogs are in physical contact with their owners, their brains release the chemical dopamine'
One emotion which dogs certainly demonstrate is that inner calm and contentment we humans experience in the company of our loved ones, regardless of what they can provide for us in material terms.
This is something I have seen in all the golden retrievers.........read more