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Animal Instincts

Puppy Love

Reading the enigmatic hearts of our pets

The ancient Greeks had several words for different kinds of love: passionate love (eros), love of one’s family (storge), love of a friend (philia), and so on. I don’t know whether they had a word for love between a pet and a person, but it seems to me they should have. While only our pets really know whether they love us, we can extrapolate from their behavior that many do.

Pets apparently don’t love someone just because that person is there. There has to be some substance for a strong bond to develop. Love between pets and humans is dyadic: it takes two to tango. To set up the most likely scenario for the development of mutually enduring affection, follow this formula: a sensitive, needy pet—perhaps one that has been through hard times in the past—and an empathetic owner.

Not surprisingly, different species show their affection in different ways. It is widely held that cats are aloof and do not need much in the way of company. However, those raised by humans from a very early age can form close, maybe even overly close, bonds with their human caregivers. Such closely bonded cats follow their owners around the home, and some become distressed when their owners are away. In their owners’ presence, they transmit subtle signs of fondness, purring and gazing at them with squinty-eyed affection. Head-rubbing (bunting) or rubbing against an owner’s legs is another way bonded cats display their tender feelings. This is a cat’s affection at its most intense. They can’t hold hands or whisper sweet nothings in an owner’s ear, so they just do what they can. It is thought that cats come to regard kind owners as maternal figures, because we feed and groom them, just like their real moms did. Whatever you call a doting relationship like this, it is extremely close and, personally, I don’t have much difficulty using the word love to describe it.

Dog owners often seem much surer of where they stand with their pet. Author Jeffrey Masson certainly had no doubts about his dogs’ affection as he chronicled his relationship with them in his bestselling book Dogs Don’t Lie About Love. His dogs came from a pound and were quite needy. Assuming him to be a compassionate type, the stage was set for a close relationship. Of course, such dogs can become hyper-attached. A dog I wrote about in my first book, The Dog Who Loved Too Much, suffered from a severe separation anxiety that compromised his relationship with his owner. Panic and destructive behavior in the owner’s absence took their toll. But not all dogs are as needy as the ones in Masson’s book or mine. Some dominant canines can be quite independent and may solicit attention only occasionally and on their own terms.

The most functional relationships between owners and dogs are marked by neither overattachment nor underattachment. Consider the patient appreciation of a well-adjusted dog that has learned to trust and respect its owners. A good old-fashioned golden retriever comes to mind—one that has been raised with care to be a contributing family member. I have a mental picture of such a dog walking with its owners, perhaps on a beach, occasionally looking to them for direction, sensitive to every nuance of their behavior.

When owners are on the receiving end of such deep, warm regard, it is hard for them not to return it. The resulting bond can be extremely powerful, and both the people and their dogs grieve when separated by death. Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier, sat by his master’s grave in Edinburgh, Scotland, every day for 14 years until his own death. In Japan, a similarly bereaved dog met the same train every day for many years, just as he had during his master’s life. It’s hard to explain such devotion without reference to the word love.

A leading animal behaviorist, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four best sellers in the field. His latest book, The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin), was published this summer.

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