Dorothy van den Honert: Can dogs love us back?



Last October, the Sunday New York Times ran an article titled, "Dogs Are People, Too," in which the neurologist who wrote it claimed that a number of brain scans they had managed to do on specially trained dogs showed similar areas in the brains of dogs and people that led him to the conclusion that we should treat dogs as carefully as we do children.

What he tested was a place called the caudate nucleus, which in people is activated by things people enjoy, like food or music. And sure enough the old caudate nucleus lit right up in Fido when he saw a word that he was trained to associate with food. It reacted to other pleasures, like the return of his owner after a brief disappearance. (I cannot resist the picture of Daddy coming home and calling out, "I'm home, Honey!" while the little woman's caudate nucleus just goes into a tizzy.)

But the fact that dogs experience emotions doesn't seem to me to say they are necessarily people. Experiencing emotions yourself is only half the picture. The other half of the picture is doing something to deliberately cause a pleasant emotion in somebody else.

When a dog wags his tail, he does it because he is happy, not because he wants you to be happy. When a cat purrs, it is contented. It doesn't purr to make you contented. So the question becomes a twofer. Are human beings different from animals because they can deliberately do something that will cause a pleasant emotion in another person? And if dogs have that ability and can somehow use it, even without language, shouldn't we be treating them more humanely (so to speak)?

In a lifetime of owning, breeding, training, coddling, giggling at and rubbing the tum of one dog after another, I have observed a number of emotions that a dog unquestionably feels, including love, hunger, fear, anger, jealousy, confusion and guilt. Most owners see guilt at some time or other when their dog has violated instructions.

My favorite occurred one afternoon when my husband and I came in after a walk. When the kitchen door opened, Demi, instead of going through his usual routine of wagging, wiggling and tearing around, ran under the kitchen table into the corner and stayed there. We soon found out why. The remains of a roasted chicken were still up on the counter where he knew he was not allowed, of course. He had done a good job of reducing the remains to even fewer remains. It must have been delicious.


We tsk-tsked at him a couple of times to reinforce the guilt before we busted out laughing because he looked so funny under the table with his head hanging down. I can't say he never sinned again, or maybe I just don't remember.

And so the question had remained with me until I read the neurologist's article. Proving that a dog deliberately does something because he knows it will give you pleasure is hard. But maybe it can happen.

I was visiting my daughter in New Hampshire after a long absence. Her beautiful Bernese Mountain dog and I were old friends. When she saw me coming down the stairs she sang to me! She did, too. I had witnesses. It sounded rather like a wolf's howl, but with more pitches, a sweeter tone, and she did it several times. I was overcome. I had never, nor have yet, heard anything it like it. Oh yes, my grandchildren told me. There was another family friend she especially liked, and she sang to him, too!

That episode can be argued both ways, but here's one that can't. It was winter with 10 inches of snow on the ground. A little sheltie was struggling toward the house to get to a clear spot under an overhang. He was losing, and very tired.

I got into my Ugg boots, clumped through the snow to get him and carry him to the cleared driveway. But when I got to him, he wouldn't let me pick him up. "OK, have it your way," I thought to myself and started trampling down the snow to flatten it into a path behind me. When we got to the cleared driveway, he raced down it. Halfway there, he suddenly stopped, turned and looked at me and barked three times -- "Woof." Pause. "Woof." Pause. "Woof." and then he was gone.

If that wasn't "thank you," I never heard it. Maybe the doc is onto something.

Dorothy van den Honert is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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