Sam Stall

Novelist. Journalist. Repository of Odd Information.

Why Do We Love Dogs So Much? Here's Why.

          In honor of the impending release of Wedding Dogs: A Celebration of Holy Muttrimony, I'm offering an essay I wrote a few years ago about my childhood dog, Snoopy. Spoiler Alert: The end is kind of sad.

 

For the Love of Dog

The domestic canine has evolved from nuisance to helper to man’s best friend to family member. And it turns out that’s just what we need to become more human.

         

          The other day, as I ladled out $30-a-bag organic dog food to my two mutts, I started feeling guilty about Snoopy.

          Not the Peanuts character, but my childhood companion of the same name. Un-neutered, untrained and pretty much uncontrollable (except by me), he was a surly German shepherd-beagle mix who roamed the countryside by day and snoozed in his doghouse by night. He never sat a paw indoors, because to my folks, inviting a big canine into the house was as unthinkable as stabling a horse in the living room. Snoopy and I were forced to part when my family moved to a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision. It was no place for a semi-wild farm dog, so my parents got rid of him. Just like that. Needless to day, I wasn’t consulted. After all, it was 1971 and I was just a kid. And Snoopy, of course, was just a dog.

          Fast forward to 2008. My wife and I have a terrier mix named Gracie and a bigger (lots bigger) pit bull-German shepherd named Trudy. They live indoors. They sleep pretty much wherever they please. They enjoy state-of-the-art vet care. And then there’s the organic dog food -- supplemented, I’ll admit, with fresh slices of deli turkey and ham. Truly, some days they eat better than me.

          Though I love them a lot, neither dog is any more special than Snoopy was. Yet each enjoys a life that Snoopy could not even have dreamed of. He was born too soon -- just before the relationship between canines and humans (at least here in America) underwent a revolution. Instead of getting a used doghouse and A&P kibble like he did, today’s pampered pooches have designer daycare centers, couture coats and accessories, and special “bark parks” where they can consort with their own kind. More important, they’ve become full-fledged family members. That’s certainly true for mine. Through the years I’ve grieved over the deaths of beloved dogs far more than I have for some of my deceased human relations. And according to national statistics, I’m not alone in this.

          How did it happen?

          To put it simply (perhaps too simply), the dog is just now completing a journey it began tens of thousands of years ago, when its wolf ancestors started bumming around human settlements looking for scraps. This was the moment when the wild wolf began to morph into the domestic dog, and the domestic dog began its quest to conquer the human heart.

          According to Pat Goodmann, research associate and a curator of Wolf Park, a research facility located in Battlergound, Indiana, the changes that turned wolves into dogs happened gradually and by accident. For instance, those original scavengers probably fared better if they were less aggressive. Any wolf that showed too much piss and vinegar -- say, by stealing food or attacking a child -- would quickly find him- or herself “selected against.” In evolutionary biology this is a technical term for “getting killed.”

          So the more docile, adaptable animals lived while their aggressive packmates died. Eventually the survivors became extremely good at ingratiating themselves to humans. These changes became the norm, and the dog was born. Think of them as a more user-friendly version of the wolf. Or Wolf 2.0. For example, dogs can be house-trained, while wolves generally can’t. Indeed, it probably isn’t smart to even try. “I don’t think it would be wise to try rubbing their noses in poop,” Goodmann says.

          But there’s an even more vital difference. Acclimating a wolf cub to humans can be a long, tricky, not-always-successful proposition, but dog puppies are a comparative breeze. This one incredibly helpful trait probably sealed the human-canine bond. “Our species,” Goodmann says, “is notorious for going for the least labor-intensive solution.”

          Still, though -- when and why did we go from tolerating dogs to working with them to dressing them up in little outfits and letting them sleep with us?

          The pat answer is that more people live alone these days and see pets as surrogate spouses and/or children. Dr. Alan Beck, director of Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond, has heard this line for years. And it ticks him off. He says research proves that the typical canine fan isn’t a sad loner starved for companionship. “There’s four times as much dog ownership in families that have at least one child over six years old,” he says. “So they’re really an extension of the family or a part of the family, rather than a substitute for one. We all know people whose dog or cat is their family, but they’re not a major part of the pattern.”

          Secondly, though each year we spend billions on our pets, it’s not as much a we splurge on other hobbies. To put it in perspective, the typical dog owner drops roughly $500 to $800 annually on his pet. That’s a pittance compared to what a moderately committed golfer might spend on gear and trips and a club membership. And when you consider what the average dog owner gets back, this investment looks like a bargain. Studies show that pet fans have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, feel less lonely, and are generally less stressed.

          So perhaps, even though a typical dog doesn’t help us hunt or herd anymore, it still pulls its weight. Especially when it comes to teaching kids lessons about empathy that would be nearly impossible to achieve anywhere else. “It’s probably very important to child development,” Beck says. “It’s one of the very few times children learn to be nurturing. Basically, our pets are our children’s children.”

          Scientists are discovering just how indelible those lessons can be. Beck cites studies showing that, long after Alzheimer’s patients forget the names of their spouses and children, they can still recall long-gone pets. Scientists believe it’s because while we remember people in the “higher” portions of the mind (where we also keep phone numbers and such), our pets reside in a deeper zone of consciousness that no illness, however grave, can touch. “A person is only a name, but a dog is a feeling,” Beck says. “You may forget me, but you’ll remember the dog because it was so much more to you than just a name.”

          In exchange for her pricey vet care and food, Trudy has helped my 13-month-old son take the first steps toward becoming fully human. During their daily play sessions she has taught him the importance of sharing toys and being gentle to another creature. All this before he can read, write, or speak.

          Which brings me back to Snoopy. He gave me all those things, and in exchange we jettisoned him like a piece of old furniture. I still think about that, even though he’s nearly 40 years gone. According to Beck, I’ll probably still think about him when I’m old and drooling in my oatmeal. Well, fine. Perhaps that’s the only thing I can do for him now -- the only way to atone for the injustice against him. Even though we wouldn’t let him in the house, he’ll always have a place in my heart. And he can stay there as long as he likes.

          Originally published in Indianapolis Monthly.

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