Wednesday, 10 March 2010

'How we became obsessed with dogs' - The Times Magazine 6/3/10 article

Why owning a dog is good for you

They boost happiness hormones and compensate for family breakdown – no wonder dog ownership is soaring

As I write, my dog, Monty, a two-year-old labradoodle – yes, yes, a “designer dog”, get over it – is snoozing at my feet. This is a cliché, I know, and I wish I could open differently with: “As I write my dog, Monty, is practising the violin in the next room.” Or: “As I write, my dog, Monty, is checking outAntichrist on DVD, as he believes you have to make up your own mind about these things.” But, no, he’s snoozing at my feet, a coil of thick black fur, meaty warmth and the occasional, snuffling grunt. He is a funny little fellow. He is fond of fruit, particularly melon. He is fond of stealing gloves and shredding them. If I say “walk” or “biscuit” he will perform what I call his “extreme dance of happiness”, which, if you’d like to give it a go at home, must involve spinning in excited circles while trying to bite your own balls off. It could be fun. He is part of our family and is sometimes the centre of our family. We like to play the game, “What would Monty not say, even if he could speak?” and top of our list at present is, “I feel so cheap and worthless after casual sex,” and, “No, after you, I insist.” He is my first dog (as an adult) and the best dog, and I took a career break to raise him, more or less. I don’t feel I keep a dog, more that we share a life. What is this relationship I have with my dog? What is anybody’s relationship with their dog? To put it another way: just what is the status of humans and dogs these days?
Whatever else, dogs are doing something right. Heck, they’re so good even the Chinese are thinking about not eating them any more and, in the UK, the dog population has shot up from 6.4 million to 10.5 million in the past 20 years. There are still working dogs – dogs that flush, herd, retrieve, guard and merrily throttle rats – but almost all the increase has been in “companion dogs”; dogs that do not flush, herd, retrieve, guard or merrily throttle rats, but will join you on the sofa to watch Location, Location, Location and sleep on the bed, if not in it. (Another thing Monty would never say: “Can’t you ever leave me to sleep alone in the kitchen? When am I going to get some ‘me’ time around here?”) Dogs are now quasi-humans, pretty much. Dogs don’t even appear to have dog names any more. Once, they were called Spot, Patch, Lady, Lucky or Scruffy, but now they have human names. Lola is popular, I’ve noted, as are Max, Oscar, George and Millie. And Monty. I recently encountered a rottweiler called Beverley. “Good name,” I said to the owner. “Thanks,” she said. “We were going to call her Amanda, but changed our minds at the last minute.” And dogs have been commodified. You can buy anything for your dog: spa-breaks, acupuncture, perfumes, dog yoga (doga) sessions and all manner of couture, including wedding dresses, tutus and yarmulkes (available from and “the ideal attire for Hanukkah”). I once saw a pug in Manhattan wearing red wellies and a sort of umbrella hat, which did seem diminishing for all concerned, but then it did also look like rain. And while dog training as an organised activity can be traced back to the 1700s, it’s exploded in recent years, with books, manuals, DVDs, sensationally awful television shows and, of course, gurus, notably Cesar Millan.
Millan is the Mexican who smuggled himself over the border into the USA and is now a global phenomenon. As the self-mythologised “Dog Whisperer”, his television show runs in this country on some kind of eternal loop on Sky, and he’s also the celebrity dog “fixer”. For example, he “fixed” Oprah Winfrey’s dogs, which, being Oprah’s dogs, makes me think he empowered them in some way or at least helped them feel good about themselves on a fat day. He is based in LA, where he runs his “dog psychology centre”, but is currently touring the UK and is due to play Wembley tomorrow. The message he preaches is that dogs, like wolves, are pack animals and you must always show them who’s boss, who’s the alpha male around here, although I don’t know. Monty and I do fine even though I have no leadership skills whatsoever. When I was a reporter on a local newspaper and was put in charge of the office for the day, everyone went home. So why would Monty look up to me, when no one else has? And even if he did, would this be what our relationship was about?
Dr James Serpell would say not, that the Millan method doesn’t add up to much beyond an excess of “macho posturing” and the sort of old-style, dominating, behavioural techniques that actually frighten dogs. He is director of the Centre for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania and he says that, whatever else, today’s dogs certainly perform an important human function. “We’ve seen an explosion in pet populations in all industrialised countries in the past two decades,” he says. “And I keep coming back to the notion that dogs are providing people with a form of non-human support where traditional support has broken down. People are turning to dogs to compensate for that loss.” And he adds: “If you look at all the demographic statistics people are getting divorced more, having fewer children and have fewer friends as well as less social contact. A graph showing this decline is almost a mirror image of the one showing the rise in pet ownership.” Is this healthy? “Some people would say dogs do the job better than other humans when it comes to relationships. People have few conflicts with their pets, whereas human relations can have a nasty side. You can get dogs with horrendous behaviour problems, but the relationship is very complementary on the whole.”
A dog’s love is certainly unambiguous. As Freud once remarked: “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations.” Or as the philosopher Mark Rowlands, who lived with a wolf for more than a decade, writes in his appropriately named book, The Philosopher and the Wolf: “Scheming and deception lie at the core of the form of social intelligence possessed by apes and monkeys? The ape is merciless to its peers in the way a wolf or dog could never be.” I wonder, are dog-lovers less able to cope with the complexity of human relationships? Are we all, at heart, cold misanthropes?
Dr Serpell says you would think so, but a review of the evidence indicates the contrary. “There is a suggestion that pet owners have a greater desire for company and friendship, and because of this use their pets to augment what they already derive from human companionship.” How, I ask, are we meant to square the circle of loving dogs as we do, and all the rescue centres spilling with abused and abandoned dogs? “Animals in shelters,“ he replies, “usually have behaviour problems. They bark incessantly or chew up the house, which interferes with our attachment. Our love is conditional.”
Although we might not be so good for dogs – don’t get me started on the pure-breed horror stories, and those poor bulldogs who look like sat-upon toads – dogs are good for us. People with dogs live longer, have lower blood pressure, suffer fewer minor ailments and recover from illnesses faster. Dogs buffer against depression, grief and loneliness. Dogs facilitate social interaction, as my own husband will testify: “When I’m out walking Monty, lots of women talk to me, which they wouldn’t do if I didn’t have a dog.” (Do you get their numbers? “Yes. I’ve got stacks.” That’s amazing, considering you’re not that attractive. “I know!’) Children raised with dogs are more empathetic and have a better understanding of mutuality. Disturbed children undergoing therapy can be better reached when a dog is present. (Freud’s favourite chow-chow, Jo-Fi, attended all his therapy sessions.) And dog owners are fitter. On average, a person with a gym membership will exercise for two hours a week, whereas a person with a dog will exercise for eight hours. All my life I’ve prided myself on never taking any exercise, but I walk Monty on Hampstead Heath for at least a couple of hours every day and I’m never bored. His enthusiasm rubs off on me. Let’s bark at this squirrel! Let’s crash though these bushes! Let’s see if this nice golden retriever lady wants sexy time! Plus, dogs make us feel happy – chemically.
According to researchers at the University of Japan, dog owners experience a surge in the hormone oxytocin after periods of playing with their dogs or simply being gazed at by them. Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “cuddle chemical” for the role it plays in the mother-child bond. It produces positive, warm feelings and because it’s a serious stress reducer – it dampens down the area of the brain associated with anxiety – may also help explain the myriad health benefits associated with dog ownership. But if our brain chemistry responds to dogs as if they were human – or honorary humans, at least – what does this mean? That we are predisposed to bond with them, as we might with a child? Is Monty my child-substitute, even though I have a child already? (Now 17, my son clamoured for a dog, and talked the talk, but has he since walked the walk? No.) Dogs push all the right nurturing buttons, and have even been bred to appear more and more childlike, with rounded heads, big eyes and softened features. We cannot resist this baby look, which is why we also can’t resist dolphins, ET or Japanese cartoon characters.
But if dogs are going to be proper child substitutes, they are going to have to get this short-lived thing sorted. As the New York poet Mark Doty notes in his wonderful doggy memoir, Dog Years, “One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over animals who live and die with them, how real the emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them.” When one of my childhood dogs, Trixie, died, I could not speak for a week.
I grew up with dogs in London, in the Sixties. We mostly had labradors: safe, reliable, the Vauxhall Corsa of dogs. We loved them dearly, but they weren’t too much of a thing. No evening out was cut short because, “It’s not fair to leave the dog on his own for so long.” We fed them cheap smelly dog food from cheap smelly tins or they ate scraps. They were never allowed on furniture or upstairs, so my mother now says, although I certainly remember Trixie on my bed at night. I would always try and synchronise my breathing with hers, although I couldn’t tell you why. As an adult, I always felt I had a dog-holed shape in my life, a feeling Lady Annabel Goldsmith captured perfectly when she recently wrote: “Why do we love our dogs so much? It’s not, in my case, because they are a child substitute — I have five children and ten grandchildren, whom I adore. I can only describe it in the following way. I find an emptiness when the dogs are absent, compared with the cosiness of coming back after an evening out to be greeted by a rapturous pack, a positive whirlpool of paws and tongues and yelps of delight.”
I decided to get a dog once I started working exclusively from home, and would not have entertained the idea otherwise. People who leave their dogs for eight hours at a stretch are, to my mind, committing a criminal act for which a custodial sentence would not be inappropriate. I chose a labradoodle – mother a labrador, father a poodle, although neither stuck around and I think they’ve had more children since – because a labradoodle fitted the bill. Right temperament; right size; right sort of coat. I do feel guilty about not getting a rescue dog but, because it was my first dog, didn’t want to end up out of my depth; plus I am thinking of getting a second, rescue dog? Look, I don’t have to justify myself to you!
My husband did not want to get a dog. “We live on the brink of chaos as it is,” he said, “and a dog would push us over the edge.” The dog has pushed us over the edge, but he now loves the dog, goes camping with the dog, and walks the dog off lead around London, which makes my heart stop just thinking about it. I ask him why he thinks Monty seduced him. Go on, I say. Give us a quote. “I don’t know,” he says. “Can’t you make something up?” Perhaps it’s as Doty says: that it’s impossible to put this love into words, just as it’s impossible to put any love into words: “You can describe your beloved until the tongue ties and still, in truth, fail to get at the particular quality that has captured you.” Or perhaps it’s because our relationship with dogs cannot be mediated by language. As Virginia Woolf said about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, Flush: “Not a single one of his myriad sensations ever submitted itself to the deformity of words.” Or it could just be that my husband is a lazy a*** who is too busy collecting women’s phone numbers. Still, I think he would say the following about dogs: they are bloody good at soliciting our care.
Although it’s always been thought that dogs evolved from wolves around 15,000 years ago, new evidence suggests it may be as long as 135,000 years ago, in which case dogs evolved along with us. It’s astonishing, when you think about it. But to be descended from a wolf is not to be a wolf, and dogs are now not wolves. Wolves howl whereas dogs bark, possibly to communicate with us. Any owner can tell their dog’s anxiety bark (high-pitched, whiny) from its guarding bark (low, deep, full-throttled). A wolf has a “mechanical” intelligence and will try to figure out problems by itself, whereas a dog will try to enlist human help, as Monty does when he scratches the back door to go out, or thumps his bowl with a paw in the hope it’s dinner time, which it rarely is. (As he would say: “Well, it was worth a try.”) But it’s the dog’s attentiveness to humans that really separates dogs from wolves, and particularly a dog’s attentiveness to our faces. A wolf won’t look a human in the face, but dogs not only look right at us, they look at us in a uniquely human way.
When humans look at another human face their eyes wander left, falling on the right hand side of the person’s face. This “left gaze bias” only occurs with human faces and does not apply at any other time. The reason for this? Probably, it’s because our faces are not symmetrical and the right side of our faces are better at expressing our emotional state. This was thought to be a peculiarly human trait until researchers at Lincoln University discovered that dogs also exhibit this “left gaze bias” – which means what exactly? That they are gauging our emotions? Here is Daniel Mills, professor of veterinary behavioural medicine at Lincoln: “The question we asked is, can dogs do what humans do, and the answer is ‘Yes’ and I’m not surprised. If you speak to the average dog owner they’ll say: of course dogs do that.”
So the things dog-owners have felt intuitively all along, that dog’s have a sixth sense and know how you’re feeling, might be true? “The thing we consistently find about dogs is that they are incredibly perceptive. While they may not have some of the human capabilities, they can behave as if they have because they are so perceptive about what is going on.” This makes sense biologically. If the dog is dependent on us, it needs to know where our behaviour is going. Are we in a bad mood? Should it keep out of our way? Further, research in Hungary is showing that if a dog is trained to understand the pointing gesture and two bowls are put out – one containing food and one not – the dog will over-ride what his nose is telling him and go to the empty bowl if the human is pointing at it. “The dog always wants to be where the human is,” says Professor Mills, “and is just so incredibly tuned into our body language.”
The study of domestic dogs is a new discipline – previously, domestic dogs were considered too “artificial” to be worth the bother – and there are, he says, exciting discoveries to come. Work is being done in social cognition, language cognition and the role of dogs in child development. “If you look at family psychology, which has been going on for 50 years, the role of the pet has hardly been considered. In some cities, mainly associated with poverty, a child is more likely to grow up with a dog than it is a father. That’s really quite a shocking statistic, and psychology hasn’t even thought about it.” So it’s not all about being the dog’s boss then? “That,” he says, “is rubbish. And such a primate way to think. There is no evidence dogs can use social status to motivate behaviour. It’s a really good example of anthropomorphism. Humans may think in terms of being motivated by a hierarchy, but there is no evidence a dog’s brain is capable of that.” How would he, then, describe the relationship between man and dog today? “It’s like a family friendship,” he says.
Domestic dogs are phenomenal. They look to us, are in tune with us and want to know us even when we are not worth knowing. You may say that the average dog’s life isn’t “natural”, but who is to say what nature intended? At some point in their history, wolves attached themselves to humans and became dogs. And as Rowlands notes: “To the extent that nature has intentions at all, this was part of her intentions no more and no less than wolves remaining wolves.” I ask Professor Mills if he feels sorry for the average urban pooch and he says no, not at all. Dogs are endlessly adaptable, and as long as you don’t forget the dog in the dog, and offer exercise, stimulation and company, a dog can have a good life anywhere.
I don’t think I understand Monty that much better after this journey, but I do understand our relationship better, and why he means so much to me. There is a proper thing going on here, and it’s a thing that goes back thousands of years and gets my brain chemistry all fired up. I don’t know what Monty would have to say about any of this, obviously, but do know some further things he wouldn’t say, if you’re still interested. One is: “You look wiped out. Shall we skip our walk this afternoon?” And another might be: “Drink from the toilet? Why would I want to do that? It’s so, so déclassé?”

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