Is It Possible That Our Love for Dogs Is in Our DNA?

My ancestors loved and sacrificed for their dogs long before it was the norm. A "Must Love Dogs" gene is the only rational explanation.


The man sat in the waiting room with his head in his hands. He was alone, his wife at home with their young daughter. He wasn’t one to cry but he felt tears beginning to sting his eyes. What was taking so long?

Finally, a door opened and the veterinarian appeared, motioning toward the man. The man rose unsteadily and followed the vet into the exam room. The man didn’t want to meet the vet’s eyes. He had a bad feeling about what was going to be said.

“I’m afraid Tony’s sick. Very sick. It looks like he may have eaten some rat poison.”

The man’s mind flashed back to earlier in the day. He had been working in the yard and found what looked like bits of ground beef. It was odd but hadn’t meant anything to him at the time. But now … had a neighbor poisoned his dog?

“Okay,” the man exhaled slowly. “What do we need to do?”

The vet measured his words carefully, “Well, like I said, he’s a very sick dog. It’s probably best to put him down.”

“Put him down?! Are you saying there’s nothing you can do for him?”

“Sure, we could try. But, well, chances aren’t good. And even if we could save him, he’d have to stay here for at least a couple of weeks and it can get expensive very quickly.”

The year was 1950. There were no such things as credit cards and the man was not wealthy. He was a blue-collar worker with a wife and daughter to support. Times were tight. Even so, he prided himself on always paying cash, on never owing anyone a dime.

At last he raised his eyes to look at the vet, a man he’d known for years. “He’s a good dog, John. I can’t just let him die without trying to save him. But …” he straightened his shoulders and took a breath. “Well, I might need to pay it out over time. If that would be okay.”

The vet hesitated. It wasn’t that he was concerned about being paid. He knew that the man would make good on his debt. It was just that … “I wouldn’t feel right taking your money.” He put a hand on the man’s shoulder and said as gently as he could, “His chances aren’t very good. I can’t guarantee that I can save him.”

The man uttered just one word, “Try.”

So over the next two weeks, the vet tried and little by little, by some miracle, Tony got better. Finally, he was joyously reunited with the man, his wife and little girl. Over the next few months, the family happily scrimped and saved to repay the vet who had given them back their dog. Tony suffered no ill effects from his ordeal and lived another 15 years, finally passing away from old age when the little girl was in college.

If I’ve heard that story once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. You see, the man was my grandfather and the little girl, my mother.

When I was a child, my mother told and retold the story to emphasize that pets are not disposable and that when you take on a pet, they are a lifetime commitment. It didn’t matter how many times she told it, I always listened with rapt attention and each time felt a sense of relief when Tony lived. I already adored my grandfather, but that story made him an even bigger hero in my eyes.

Thinking back on it now as an adult, I realize how truly remarkable it was given the era and my grandfather’s personality.

The early 1950s were a very different time for dogs in America. Owners kept dogs primarily outdoors, often allowing them to freely roam the neighborhoods. There was little emphasis on veterinary care, no spaying or neutering, no worries about allergies or grain-free foods. In fact, there were few manufactured dog foods available at that time, most people feeding their dogs kitchen scraps. No one considered it cruel or unusual. It’s just that dogs were dogs and that was that.

In addition to these less dog-friendly times, my grandfather was an extraordinarily fastidious man. He took great pride in his things. He washed his car once a week without fail, hand-trimmed the grass with clippers and insisted that everyone remove their shoes before entering his home. He had plastic rug runners throughout the house and even as a child, I knew that you had to stick to the runners when going from one room to another. Plastic also covered the lampshades and even, for a time, the furniture.

But somehow Tony, a little tri-colored Rat Terrier, managed to work around the era and my grandfather’s compulsive cleanliness. Tony was a full-fledged member of the family, living and sleeping in the house. He was included in family activities like Christmas celebrations and birthday parties. (Somewhere there’s a picture of my four-year-old mother looking adorable in a frilly party dress while Tony takes a leak on a nearby lamp post.) When my grandparents moved from the country to the city, Tony, of course, came along. And when he almost died from rat poison, my mother’s family ate rice and beans for months to save him.

Much the same is true on my father’s side of the family when it comes to dogs. While there are no stories as dramatic as Tony’s, there’s little doubt that dogs have always been treasured family members. There’s no better proof of this than a photo from the mid-1960s, which was taken for the church directory. The story goes that as they headed out the door to get their portrait done, my grandmother scooped up Tawny Angel, their Pekingese. When my grandfather asked what in the world she was doing, she declared that since it was a family picture, it wouldn’t be complete without all their family members.

While I doubt there is any scientific proof, I suspect that somewhere in the human genome lies a “Must Love Dogs” gene. In my mind, it’s the only rational explanation for my ancestors who acted so irrationally (given the times) about their dogs. And because of this gene, I never had a prayer of a fur-free home, having surely inherited it (but not the fastidious gene) from both sides of the family. At least that’s what I like to think when I get strange looks from people who have just discovered that my dog has her very own blog. It’s comforting, really, to just shrug and smile, secure in the knowledge that I can’t help it. Dog love is in my DNA.

Your turn: What is your family’s dog history? Tell us in the comments!

About the Author: Amber Carlton is owned by two cats and two dogs (all rescues), and is affectionately (?) known as the crazy pet lady amongst her friends and family. She and her husband (the crazy pet man) live in colorful Colorado where they enjoy hiking, biking and camping. Amber owns Comma Hound Copywriting and also acts as typist and assistant for Mayzie’s Dog Blog. She encourages other crazy pet people to connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

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