Eric Zorn continues his debate with Jon Katz, journalist and author of a number of books on dogs:
Katz is wrong about dogs.
He underestimates them. He trivializes their affections. He disrespects their intelligence. He writes about them as though they’re mere animals.
“I’m helping unite the country!” he said brightly.
I invited him to lunch earlier this week for a long talk about love, spirituality and morality, both canine and human.
I haven’t read any of Mr. Katz’s books, at least in part because I’ve been too busy walking, feeding, keeping company with, and otherwise caring for dogs.
The breed with which I’ve now spent a substantial portion of my life, Samoyeds, are pack dogs. I can’t write with confidence about other breeds but I can write about what I’ve seen. They establish hierarchies, which requires discrimination. They take care of each other when they’re sick or injured, they mourn the deaths of their fellow pack members. They have preferences both among their own kind and among human beings, preferring the company of some over others.
Dogs don’t talk. Too many human beings confuse that with not communicating. Dogs understand words, at least as signals, and they communicate quite clearly in their own way to anyone who has the patience and inclination to pay attention to them.
Dogs haven’t just learned to cope with living with human beings. Humans have bred them selectively over tens of thousands of years so that they’re better able to do it. The characteristic they’ve been bred for, as the experiments with Arctic foxes in Siberia clearly suggest, is friendliness to humans. Part of that package of characteristics is neoteny, the tendency to preserve juvenile characteristics into adulthood and one of those juvenile characteristics is the relationship they maintain with their caregivers.
It has been demonstrated that puppies at a very young age have learned to distinguish human facial expressions and elicit responses from humans, just as babies do. Neither wolf puppies nor infant chimps have this ability.
Do human infants love their parents? What do we mean by that?
Dog are not human beings. My dogs are not my children. Dog live in a sensory space so different from ours that we can’t even imagine the world they inhabit. We meet together in shared experience, form attachments, experience loss.
I have no doubt that my dogs love me.
I’m not just being sentimental. It’s science:
Few physiological parameters for positive human-companion animal contact have been identified and those that are established have all been in humans. The implication is that if the physiological reactions are mutual, dogs would experience the same psychological benefits from these neurophysiological changes as humans. Therefore, we have determined the role of certain neurochemicals during affiliation behaviour on an interspecies basis. Our results indicate that concentrations of beta-endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, beta-phenylethylamine, and dopamine increased in both species after positive interspecies interaction, while that of cortisol decreased in the humans only. Indicators of mutual physiological changes during positive interaction between dog lovers and dogs may contribute to a better understanding of the human-animal bond in veterinary practice.
Or, said in words that are easier to understand, our dogs love us.