The lengths that normal people will go to in order to protect their dogs testiﬁes to the love and devotion many of us have for them. I remember a Wisconsin woman who was interviewed after a tornado destroyed her home and all of her belongings. “We’re okay,” she kept saying, clutching her dog to her chest, “we’re okay, that’s what matters.” “We’re okay” meant her husband, her children, and her dog; she wasn’t sorting them out by species. After the tragedy of Katrina, I heard discussions all over the country about what each of us would do if we were told to evacuate without our pets. What would you do if you had to choose between the safety of evacuation and risking your life to stay with your dog? Everyone at my ofﬁce said we couldn’t imagine living with the knowledge that we’d left our dogs behind, although we’d do it if we were forced to evacuate to save our children. Merely the thought of making such a choice was so upsetting we could barely talk about it. Our response wasn’t unique to people whose lives and careers are devoted to dogs. My farm’s pragmatic chain-sawing, brush-clearing handyman said that someone would have to shoot him before he’d leave his Rat Terrier behind to die.
What in heaven’s name is going on here? Risking your life for a member of another species? Loving your dog as much as you love a human? That’s ﬂat-out amazing if you think about it. And yet, even if some people think it’s crazy, those of us who love dogs love them like family, or perhaps more accurately, like the family we always wanted.
Surely love, “an intense feeling of tender affection and compassion,” is the foundation of our relationship with dogs. I remember when I got my ﬁrst Border Collie, Drift. Like an infatuated teenager, I was obsessed with his every move. I thought about him constantly, watched with a sense of wonder as he licked his paws, purred with comfort and completion when we cuddled together on the couch. There are millions of people who feel the same way, whose dogs bring them a unique happiness not found in other relationships.
I’m not talking about people who love animals more than they love people. I’m talking about people who love people, who have enriching, healthy relationships with friends and family and co-workers, and yet who love dogs so much they describe them as one of their greatest joys in life. People who skip having drinks with co-workers after work because their dogs have been alone too long; people who take their dogs on vacation, who use limited funds to buy them toys and food, who borrow money to pay the vet bill. I meet people everywhere who just want to talk about their dogs, about the silly little trick their Cairn Terrier learned all by himself, or the endearing way their Greyhound cuddles with them on the couch.
Our love for dogs is intense, pervasive, and sometimes heroic. If you think about it, it’s as remarkable as the physics of electrons and the wonder of outer space. It deserves our attention, and a good place to start is with the biology of love itself.
The Biology of Love
In a 2005 op-ed piece in The New York Times, the biologist Bernd Heinrich said: “Functionally, I suspect love is often [a] temporary chemical imbalance of the brain induced by sensory stimuli that causes us to maintain focus on something that carries an adaptive agenda.” Doesn’t make you all warm and mushy, now does it? However, Heinrich’s point was not to diminish love’s beauty, but to argue that love has a biological basis, and that there’s no reason to believe that we can claim it as uniquely human.