From ancient kings to modern monarchs, the human heart has held a place of reverence for dogs. Our love affair is borne out in the 63 million American households that include dogs. It’s written in the tears of readers sobbing over Marley & Me and in the fact that I can’t bring myself to watch Old Yeller. Even cartoon canines tug at our heartstrings.
Why do dogs win our hearts? To answer that, you have to go way back.
The history of it
Tens of thousands of years ago, when wild wolves were drawn to the outskirts of early man’s campsites, the odd pairing formed a symbiotic relationship: Wolves received scraps of food left over by man, and man gained skilled hunting companions. So valuable was the wolves’ assistance in the hunt that some theorize it gave humans an evolutionary edge over Neanderthals.
The human-canine bond strengthened over millennia as that early quadruped developed into the dogs we know and love today. Along the way, people worshiped deities depicted as canines: Wepwawet and Anubis are among the earliest ancient Egyptian gods. Even the dog’s taxonomy reflects our bond: Canis lupus familiaris, “familiaris” meaning friend or household member.
The psychology of it
Humans have an innately emotional response to dogs. The sight of a baby-like puppy with a playful, happy-go-lucky spirit stirs our parental instincts.
“The average dog has a mind equivalent to a human 2- to 3-year-old,” says psychologist and dog expert Dr. Stanley Coren. “We recognize that and treat them as if they were human toddlers who need and deserve our care.”
Indeed, to love gives life purpose; to be loved gives life meaning. So it’s not surprising that dog adoptions soared during the isolation of the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. Dogs help fulfill our essential need for companionship. Their carefree attitude provides perspective, and their joyful nature offers a fundamental lesson in how life ought to be lived. Often, dogs seem like the better version of people — the way we wish humans would be.
“Dogs are incredibly forgiving,” says Dr. Coren, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “If we have had an awful day and snap at them because we are so peevish, 10 minutes later they are back in our laps washing our face with affection.”
And it doesn’t hurt that dogs make us feel smart.
“Dogs pay attention to what we say regardless of how foolish or stupid it might be,” says Dr. Coren, author of several bestselling books on dogs. “They have a way of looking at us which seems to say, ‘Oh my God, that is the most clever and philosophically relevant thing I ever heard!’”
The chemistry of it
Dogs not only make us feel better, they actually make us better. Studies show that contact with canines can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, decrease the risk of heart disease, strengthen the immune system, prevent allergies in children, and reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
“Pets’ effect on human health spans across many facets,” says Elisabeth Van Every, communications and outreach specialist for Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of animal contact. “They all play uniquely vital roles
in improving human health and well-being.”
Dogs inspire regular exercise and improve social interaction. “The human-animal bond plays a key role in helping us lead healthy lifestyles,” Elisabeth says. “At the very simplest level, seeing or petting a dog can release oxytocin or ‘feel-good’ endorphins, making us overall happier people.”
The reality of it
Mister Rogers advised us to find comfort by looking for the helpers. I look for dogs: rescue dogs, service dogs, assistance dogs, therapy dogs, emotional-support dogs.
Dogs’ superior auditory and olfactory skills have helped rescue people from the debris of natural disasters and the rubble on 9/11. They dig out strangers, sniff out crime and seek out missing persons.
They help children with autism, seniors with Alzheimer’s and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. They help rehabilitate the incarcerated and raise the spirits of the infirmed.
And for people with physical challenges, dogs are a lifeline.
“Nelson is perfect for me,” L.E. Ohman says of her 3-year-old Labrador Retriever “He has a few quirks, like refusing to go up and down stairs. I’m a wheelchair user, so I share his aversion to stairs.
“He is usually by my side and has learned to pick things up for me and is a terrific personal trainer,” says the Melbourne, Australia, writer and editor. “He’s a very wise soul and a much loved member of our family.”
The simplicity of it
We owe a lot to dogs. For me, I can never thank dogs enough. After all, I spent much of my career writing about them. The dogs I have been fortunate enough to have in my pack gave me more than I ever gave them. They provided friendship, loyalty, laughter, non-judgmental listening, and unconditional love and devotion on a level I’m not sure I could ever offer — or expect from — a human.
And maybe that’s precisely why dogs win our hearts: They do so much for us, yet ask so little in return. For them, it’s enough to rest their head in your lap while you stroke their soft fur and say, “Good dog.”