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Research on dogs has exploded in recent decades. Universities have opened canine cognition labs, and scientists have probed dogs’ intelligence, behavior, biology and skills.
Clive Wynne, a psychologist and founder of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, released a book that walks readers through the growing body of dog science. In it, he argues that what makes dogs remarkable is not their smarts, but their capacity to form affectionate relationships with other species — in short, to love.
Wynne spoke with The Washington Post in 2019 about his book, Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Washington Post: Many dog owners will think, “Of course my dog loves me.” Why study this?
Wynne: It’s at least worth thinking about that what on the surface appears to be something in our dogs that people are happy to call love might — might — not have deserved that name. It could have been that our dogs were in some sense just faking it to get better treats. Ultimately, this is, to me, about trying to understand the secret of dogs’ success and what makes dogs unique.
Scientists in the first decade of the 21st century were mainly concerned with the idea that dogs have special forms of intelligence and social cognition that were unique in the animal kingdom. From the point of view of those of us that are in the science of studying dogs, the idea that it’s affection and not intelligence that’s the secret ingredient that makes dogs successful is quite a radical idea.
Q: What is love? Don’t we need a clear definition?
A: I avoid using the L-word in my scientific writing. We talk about exceptional gregariousness. We talk about hypersociability. When we’re doing science, we have to find terms that can be operationalized, or things that can be measured. We can measure whether a dog chooses to go for a bowl of food or its owner when it’s separated from both food and its owner for many hours. We can measure how hormonal levels go up in both dogs and their owners when they look into each other’s eyes.
At the end of the day, an overarching, multidimensional phenomenon like love has to be broken down into small, measurable pieces. But I think if one were to just do science on the small, measurable pieces and resist the attempt to synthesize all those observations into a picture, that would be a disservice.
Q: You and I have had conversations in the past where I got the impression you would be on the more skeptical end of the dogs-love-us spectrum.
A: I’m a reluctant convert. I was somebody who was resistant to the idea that what appeared to be affection radiating from our dogs could really be that. But ultimately, a combination of getting this dog into my life — who’s lying down next to me now, Xephos — and the overwhelming evidence of the studies that my students and I did, and the studies that so many other people have done, it really all adds up to an irresistible picture. I know that sometimes Xephos just wants dinner. But I’m pretty convinced that that’s not the whole picture. She really does feel a bond, a connection toward me that’s as real as any other connection that any other individual in my life might feel toward me.
Q: Anthropomorphism is frowned upon in science. How can you examine dogs’ ability to love without veering into anthropomorphic territory?
A: I’m on record as one of the vehemently anti-anthropomorphic animal behavior scientists. Anthropomorphism means ascribing human qualities to animals. And certainly love is something we know first through human experience. But I think that different species can have different forms of love.
Dogs fall in love much more easily than people do, and they also seem to be able to move on much more easily than people can. A lot of people have anxiety about the idea of adopting an adult dog. Wouldn’t the dog be pining for its original human family? But what evidence we have indicates that dogs can form new loving relationships much more easily and don’t seem to have the same level of trauma from being taken away from preexisting loving relationships.
I’m not saying human and dog love are identical. I’m just saying there’s enough similarity between how dogs form strong emotional bonds and how people form strong emotional bonds that it’s fair enough to use the love word.
Q: So dogs’ intelligence — cognitive skills that make them uniquely able to understand us — is not their secret?
A: I thought it was a fair enough idea when I started studying dogs: Maybe dogs had developed special forms of cognition by living with people for 15,000 years.
The aha moment came when we got an invitation from Wolf Park in Indiana. Wolf Park has been hand-rearing wolves since 1974. When we’re testing wolves, we’re testing the wild ancestor of dogs, and it’s a crucial way to see what makes dogs unique, because we’re seeing what differences are there. We got around to having the wolves there tested in this very simple task where you point at something on the ground and see if the animal goes where you point. This was supposed to be something that was unique to dogs, and sure enough, the wolves were excellent at it. That was totally the aha moment — it couldn’t be how dogs were unique.
Subsequently, we and other people have tested goats and dolphins, and even bats. Bats raised by people follow human pointing gestures, and bats raised by other bats do not. What matters is your early experience in life. That’s what determines whether an animal will be sensitive to what people are doing.
Q: You write about many studies that show dogs behaving as though they love us. Can you describe one you find particularly compelling?
A: The one I like best is one of our own, which we usually call the rescue experiment. There had been a prior experiment where scientists had volunteer dog owners pretend to have heart attacks, and the dogs didn’t do anything to help. I thought this was quite convincing: It seemed to suggest that dogs didn’t really love people. Later, I thought, “Well, how are you supposed to know what to do under those circumstances?”
So I looked into these experiments that certainly indicate that dogs express concern when a human seems to be crying. Then I read this book about pets in the Second World War that mentioned repeated stories of dogs trying to dig their owners out from under the rubble of bombed homes. And I thought, “Maybe we can make an experiment where we in some way bomb people’s homes and see if their dog will dig them out!”
Ultimately, it’s a box that we ask people to crawl inside and then cry out in distress. And we see whether the dog will open the box for them. If you set it up how I described it, about one-third of dogs rescue their owners. But pretty much all dogs look very, very upset, and what appears to be happening is that all the dogs are disturbed, but only about one-third can figure out what needs to be done.
So we did a follow-up experiment where before we put the person in the box, we put food in the box and we train the dogs to open the box to get the food out. Going forward, when we put the owner in the box and ask the owner to cry out in distress, we know that the dogs know how to open the box. Under those conditions, pretty much every dog opened the box. That, to me, is a compelling demonstration that dogs really do care if they can understand. If they can figure out what to do, they will.
Q: You also write about how biological research backs up the idea that dogs can love.
A: If it’s there, it’s got to be in their biology. Their biology has to underwrite their behavior.
A Japanese research group analyzed dogs’ and people’s urine for levels of this hormone oxytocin, which gets called the love hormone because it spikes when two people are in loving contact with each other. They had people and dogs come into the lab and look at each other lovingly. Sure enough, the oxytocin levels went up on both sides of the relationship.
If you show dogs in MRI scanners objects that remind them of either food or the presence of their owners, you can see how their brains light up. And the reward centers of the brain light up more strongly to signals that say “Your owner is nearby” than to signals that say “You’re going to get a piece of sausage.” That’s really strong evidence inside the brain that the presence of a beloved human is rewarding to a dog in itself.
The more biological side that I’ve been involved in is digging right down to the genetic code. In part of the genome of the dog that shows evidence of recent changes, the equivalent part of the human genome is responsible for this syndrome called Williams-Beuren. The most peculiar symptom is what they call exaggerated gregariousness. People who have this syndrome have no notion of stranger, they treat everybody as a friend, they’re extremely outgoing. When I read this, I thought: They’re much like our dogs!
So some people got together and did these very simple behavioral tests for what you could call gregariousness or sociability on dogs and on wolves. And we got DNA samples from those dogs and wolves, and we identified three genes that show the mutation in those genes [is] responsible for a big difference between dogs and wolves in their gregariousness. Dogs are much more outgoing, and this correlates in three genes that independently have been shown to be responsible for the gregariousness aspect of Williams syndrome. So deep into the deepest level of biology, into the genetic code that underlies everything that dogs become, you can find it all the way through.
(Note: Wynne writes in his book of his relief that advocates for children with Williams syndrome weren’t offended by this finding. “If they had tails, they would wag them,” one told a reporter.)
Q: Let’s say I find myself in possession of a wolf pup. Legal and ethical considerations aside, if I cuddle it and feed it and train it, will it love me?
A: You can form a strong emotional bond that’s reciprocated with a wolf. Tameness is a conjunction of the right DNA and early life experiences. The early life experience that dogs need to become tame involve really very little exposure to humans. Meanwhile, if you want to have a tame wolf or a tame lion or a tame tiger, even a tame squirrel, all those things are perfectly possible, but they take much more hard work. Because that’s another way that dogs changed during the process of domestication. They became much easier to tame.
Q: Before we humans get all smug about our lovableness, you should probably explain that dogs don’t reserve their affection for people.
A: It’s not the case that dogs have special genes or special capacities to form relationship with humans. Dogs just have special capacities to form relationships with anything. Whatever they meet early on in life, they will then accept members of that species as potential friends later on.
In Australia, there are these beautiful little penguins that live on offshore islands. In one particular case, the island is not really far enough offshore, and at certain times, at low tide, foxes can get out and they have repeatedly decimated the penguin colony. So a nearby farmer who had dogs guarding his free-range chickens suggested putting dogs out on the islands to guard the penguins. The dogs were put with penguins when they were puppies, so now the dogs form warm, strong emotional bonds with penguins and follow the penguins around and keep the foxes away. It’s a beautiful success story about how dogs’ very open program to forming strong, loving relationships can be put to use protecting endangered wildlife.
Q: The final section of your book is a sort of call to action. What do you think we owe to dogs in return for their love?
A: Dogs gave up their free-ranging, roaming, hunting lives in order to hitch their wagon to ours, and I think that implies duties toward them. You know your dog needs feeding. Most recognize that dogs need exercise. The thing that upsets me is that people don’t give enough thought to the fact that a large part of what makes it so wonderful to live with a dog is your dog’s social nature. You come home and there’s at least somebody who’s happy to see you.
So I think the cruelest thing that we routinely do to our dogs is leaving them home for eight, 10, 12 hours a day. If your life is such that your dog is going to have to be left alone for more than four hours routinely, then you should reconsider whether you have a life that a dog can comfortably fit into.
But the thing about dogs is they make friends so easily. You can have a neighbor or a friend come, or you pay a dog-walking service. That’s part of my whole point here. Your tame wolf will probably not be interested in having a stranger come and take them out. But your dog will.