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Our Love of Canines: What Science Explains, and Omits

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As experiences, relationships and milestones define our lives, some of us get lucky enough to have silent witnesses along the way—witnesses that quietly watch us, like the mirror in the bedroom, and reflect back joy when we’re happy or comfort when we’re damaged. Dogs are mysterious creatures that seem to know our truths, good or bad, before we do. Even in our darkest moments, there’s no place they’d rather be, than by our side.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to learn that scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna found the bond between dogs and their owners to be strikingly similar to the parent-child relationship in humans:

“Domestic dogs have been closely associated with humans for about 15,000 years. The animals are so well adapted to living with human beings that in many cases the owner replaces conspecifics and assumes the role of the dog’s main social partner. The relationship between pet owners and dogs turns out to be highly similar to the deep connection between young children and their parents.”

My canine companion came into my life 15 years ago, when I worked as a news reporter for a small town paper in Georgia. I had been lamenting the loss of my dear Jack, a small Pomeranian-Spitz mix that was killed by a hit-and-run car, when my father showed up on my doorstep with a timid Chow-Shepherd mix of auburn coat (sort of like the color of my hair).

“His name is Rusty,” my dad said. “We got him from the Humane Society for you.”

It was a thoughtful gesture, a temporary palliative, on an open wound, but still, he was a dog—another life requiring my time and work. Plus, I mulled over questions of dog/owner chemistry: I didn’t choose him. I wasn’t there, at the shelter, with my guiding instinct leading me to the right one—the one worth the risk, and meant for me.

That story wasn’t there. Were we a good pair?

As a newspaper reporter, I had a couple of unsavory types (a protesting reader and lovelorn suitor) come to my home. Rusty, though only a year old and still limping from lodged bee-bees in his hind leg from previous owner abuse, immediately assumed the role of defender.

Over the years, as I lived in the future—in my planner, scheduling away what I would do next, Rusty would drop his tennis ball at my feet, wanting to play and forcing me to live with him, in the moment.

Soon I’d move abroad, to teach and find a larger purpose—floating up in the clouds, but he would be there, with my parents, yelping when I returned home, reminding me that he was still my loyal companion, and my anchor when I needed to be grounded.

Rusty was everything I wasn’t, and that made him my perfect match.

Rusty circa 2003

Rusty circa 2006

At times I imagined he had supernatural powers, that he really did possess a special sense, to know so well what I needed, when I needed it. Research on this topic, though, refutes this possibility.

In an article titled “Social Animals: The Limits of Anthropomorphism,” in The Weekly Standard, Wray Herbert says:

“Some believe that other animals—especially pets and lab animals—have all sorts of complex mental characteristics, that they are basically ‘little people in furry suits…’. Chihuahuas and gorillas are incapable of high-level moral reflection because their minds cannot build flexible mental scenarios, as our minds routinely do. We alone can reason about past, present, and future motives, beliefs, and actions—and, based on this reasoning, make deliberate decisions about how we will act. No nonhuman comes remotely close to this moral capacity.”

But Mr. Herbert didn’t know Rusty, and how he kissed my brother’s feet before he was put to sleep in his final days in the summer of 2010, as if he knew his time had come. Did he know of his future, which in turn prompted him to express his gratitude? Or maybe Rusty was perfect only because I believed him to be, and if that’s the case—is it so bad to believe a fallacy to be true when it fills our life with joy?

I will never know Rusty’s full potential, but what I do know is that there is a connection with our pets, almost cosmic, that can not be explained by science. For them to have loved us, without judgment, and to be gone is a vacancy that can never really be filled, but appreciated, as reminder of the fleeting beauty in connections that defy explanation, but nevertheless, are very much there.

Photo Credit: JensAar via photopin cc