By Debbie Koenig
Whether you’re a cat person or a dog person, we can probably all agree: Dogs are generally happier to see you. But what’s driving that enthusiasm? Both animals know you’re the caretaker, the supplier of food and other support. Yet cats are famously aloof, while dogs greet you at the door like a long-lost friend. Canine behaviorist Clive Wynne, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. He’s spent years trying to determine what, exactly, connects our dogs to us. His answer: Love. In his new book, Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, Wynne draws on the latest research to show that the capacity to love reaches all the way into your dog’s DNA. WebMD spoke with him about the scientific proof he found, and why it’s cruel to leave a dog home alone.
Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WebMD: What made you want to investigate dogs’ emotional lives scientifically?
Dr. Wynne: I was driven to it by my dog, Xephos.
I’m an animal psychologist, fascinated by the minds of other species. And then I realized that I wasn't just interested in animal minds, I was actually interested in the interaction between people and animals. And so about 15 years ago, I switched to studying dogs, because there is no species with which people have a longer history together, or a more intimate relationship.
I was following a line that others had started before me, arguing that dogs had evolved certain special kinds of intelligence, that they had an exceptional capacity to understand people. That seemed reasonable, but my position changed at Wolf Park in Indiana. The people there have been hand-rearing wolves since 1974—those wolves are as responsive to people as any you can find anywhere. And I discovered, anything that was supposed to be unique to dogs, those wolves could do it, too.
Then seven years ago we got Xephos. And quite quickly I realized, she's not smart. I love her, but she's not one of the clever ones. But there is something really striking about her, something that if you came to my door, you would immediately recognize her capacity for affection, a desire to form emotional connections. And so I began to wonder whether maybe we'd all be barking up the wrong tree. Instead of looking for intellectual capacities in dogs, maybe we should investigate their emotional capacity.
WebMD: Why does it matter if their behavior comes from being uniquely intelligent or from being capable of love?
Dr. Wynne: It matters on two different levels. I’m a scientist, forever turning over stones to see what’s underneath, to understand the way the world is structured as opposed to the way it appears to be. I want to get to the bottom of this puzzle: Why are dogs so successful? Anywhere people live, dogs live, too.
And then, from understanding flows guidance for action in the future. I want to know how to help dogs lead their best possible lives. If you think they’re exceptionally intelligent, you may be disappointed by your dog. Because unless you spend a lot of time carefully, patiently training a dog, I don’t think their intelligence is all that remarkable. But if you recognize that their capacity for emotional bonds is their essence, then you look out for that.
One of the most common behavioral problems that cause people to bring their dogs to the vet or an animal behaviorist is what people call separation anxiety: behavioral problems that arise when dogs are left alone. I think that’s dogs crying out in their loneliness. It’s cruel to take a highly social animal and shut them up all alone for eight, ten, twelve hours while we go out to work and play. Understanding the true nature of dogs enables us to provide guidance on how to live with them so they have the richest lives, smooth, well-functioning lives.
WebMD: It seems pretty challenging to construct an experiment with dogs. How did you figure out ways to produce measurable results?
Dr. Wynne: Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s really simple. There are ways of demonstrating dogs’ concern for people that anyone who wants to can try. This isn’t my experiment, but if you sit down and pretend to cry, your dog will in all likelihood will be concerned. Set up your cell phone and record what the dog is doing, then later have a good look. Our dogs get very concerned. If you want to make it a scientific experiment, make a different sound that you don’t commonly make, like humming, and do that at the same volume as crying for a few minutes. Your dog’s nothing like as bothered, maybe just curious because you’re making a strange sound. At some level it doesn’t take an enormous amount to show results in scientifically reliable, robust ways.
But many studies I talk about in the book were carried out with more elaborate equipment.
The most exciting science that I've personally been involved in, we've actually collaborated with a geneticist. And we've been able to drill down into the genetic code and identify three genes that mutated in the journey from wolf to dog, which we call domestication. All of our dogs are descended from wolves. Three genes mutated in that journey. And those genes are responsible for the highly social demeanor of our dogs. Those three genes are part of a package of over two dozen genes that are altered in a very rare syndrome in people called Williams Syndrome. The most striking impact is that people who have it are much more friendly than normal human beings. So we've seen a connection all the way down to the deepest level of the genetic code.
WebMD: Out of all the experiments you participated in or witnessed, which had the biggest impact on you?
Dr. Wynne: I love the very simple things. Like, as I say, the pretending to cry. I think one of the problems in science is that so much of it is obscured behind technical vocabulary and very expensive equipment. I love being involved in something where I can say to an audience, go home, sit on the sofa, and pretend to cry. It's immediately available. But there’s something tremendously exciting about digging deeper and deeper into the biological makeup of the dog. And finding how their capacity to love people is implemented in all the different levels of their biology right down to the deepest, deepest level of the genetic code.
WebMD: The sections about how humans’ and dogs’ hearts beat in sync, and each releases oxytocin when they look into each other’s eyes, were fascinating. What do these discoveries tell us?
Dr. Wynne: They show us how dogs’ love for us is programmed into the very makeup of their bodies, and it adds to the conviction that it really is love. People will say, “My dog makes a fuss but it’s wrong to call it love, the dog is playacting to get me to feed it.” There’s a cynical view out there, so evidence of the biological levels at which dogs’ love is visible add credence to the view that they really do love us. And it's not some kind of elaborate act.
WebMD: I thought one really important point you made is that dogs love us, but their love isn’t about us specifically—dogs can love any other creature. How did you figure that out?
Dr. Wynne: It’s obvious as soon as you meet a livestock guarding dog. They’re mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. When they’re puppies, you put them with whatever livestock you want them to take care of. In the Odyssey they’re guarding pigs. I’ve seen dogs guarding goats, here in Arizona.
Dogs are born with a very open program for forming relationships with members of any species, so long as they meet some members of that species in the first three-and-a-half months of life.
The best example I've heard of, which I talk about in the book, is an island off the south coast of Australia, where there is a colony of penguins. The island they live on is unfortunately a bit too close to the shore. And at certain times of year at low tide, foxes were able to get out to the island and repeatedly decimated the penguin colony. The local city that was responsible for them didn't know what to do until a local chicken farmer proposed the idea of getting some puppies. They've been doing that now for at least five years, maybe more like 10 years. The dogs grow up with the same kind of emotional connection with penguins that humans see with our own dogs.
WebMD: You had some interesting things to say about TV dog trainers, and dog training in general. Tell me about that.
Dr. Wynne: Well, I'm not a dog trainer. I like to say it's good that my dog knows how to eat her own dinner, because I wouldn't know how to teach her to do it. But I do have some understanding of behavioral principles. And I can see that there are some very popular dog trainers who misuse and misunderstand behavioral principles. In particular, this idea of dominance.
Dominance in animal behavior is a technical term, which is just a way of describing the pecking order in a social group of animals. It would probably better be understood as leadership, and our dogs certainly look to us for leadership. They need us to show them the way and they recognize the social hierarchy in a family. But there's no benefit whatsoever in using force and violence, to try and compel your dog to recognize that you are the master and he's just a silly little thing. I mean, that's absolutely not how dominance should be understood. And it’s not what our dogs are seeking from us. You don't need to do anything more than show them that you are providing them with protection and support and yes, leadership.
WebMD: What one thing do you wish humans would do differently with their dogs after reading your book?
Dr. Wynne: I feel very strongly that we need to think hard about protecting our dogs from loneliness. There are many forms of animal cruelty, and most people can recognize most of them. I don't need to explain to people, by and large, how not to mistreat their dog. But there is one thing that people fail to recognize is cruel. And that's leaving them alone, putting them in solitary confinement for such extended periods of time. We should be drawing a line at about four hours at a stretch.
I understand I'm very privileged to be able to be at home more or less when I feel like it, and most people don't have that in their lives. But dogs can gain comfort from many other forms of company than just the company of their owners. There are dog walkers, dog sitters, doggy daycare. Just as long as people do their due diligence, because none of those are licensed professions, those are all good solutions. And consider having more than one dog, because dogs can get comfort from the company of other dogs, of course.