A dog is a dog? Really?

Often times I hear non dog lovers suggest that we are reading far too much into a dogs love and loyalty. They suggest that it’s all based on what we have to offer. They almost look down upon such loyalty that seems purely for selfish reasons. Suggest to them that a loyalty of a dog goes beyond food after a certain point and they laugh off at it. I have to admit that I did not fight that notion too much. While I did agree that dogs experienced some emotions. But I felt that those were ones that gave them evolutionary benefits and were limited to simple ones like joy, disappointment & fear – ones limited to the more primitive limbic system. I quite strongly believe secondary emotions or more complex ones were out of reach of dogs. Then, last night things changed for me.

I am currently reading a book called The Emotional Lives of Animals by Mark Bekoff. The book is changing the way I look at animals. I was struggling through the book till one particular story in the book that really stayed with me just changes things from me. I am devouring the book now at a rapid rate. Check this example out:

Nishi & her daddy share a very special bond
Veterinarian Marty Becker gave his father a miniature schnauzer, Pepsi. The dog became his fathers best friend. For years they shared the same food, the same chair and the same bed. Then, when he was eighty years old, Marty’s father committed suicide. Soon after family, friends and the police left his house, Pepsi ran downstairs to the spot in the basement where Marty’s father had died and stood as rigid as a statue. When Marty picked Pepsi up, the dog went from rigid to limb in his arms and emitted a painful moan. Marty put him in his fathers bed and Pepsi immediately fell asleep. Marty later found out form his mother that Pepsi hadn’t been in the basement for 10 years because he was afraid of steps. Had Pepsi overcome his fear in order to say good-bye to his lifelong friend? Pepsi never recovered from his companions death. Remaining weak and withdrawn, he slowly died. When Marty buried Pepsi, he was convinced that Pepsi had indeed died of a broken heart: he’d lost the will to live once the human to whom he was so closely bonded and devoted was no longer around. “

After reading this, I realized that I had a similar story locked away in my memory. The story of Ceasar and Bimbo, a GSD and a Spitz, my music teachers dogs. No prizes for guessing which dog was Ceasar and which one was Bimbo 🙂 Both male dogs. Bimbo was a largely aloof dog who seemed not to care for anything or anyone in the world. The GSD was an intense guy, used to enjoy music. They did not seem particularly affectionate towards each other. Then one day, when Ceasar was 7, he died of renal failure. Bimbo stopped eating and a month later he died. I had music lessons thrice a week and every time I went I saw Bimbo deteriorate a bit at a time and I saw his humans completely dumb founded on what had changed over night. If Bimbo had not died of a heart-break, I don’t know what it was.

Sure, we could explain loyalty, joy etc…as evolutionary emotions. But love, the kind of love that leads to such grief? Friends giving up their zest for life? What role does such love have in evolution and survival of the fittest? But that question can be put aside for discussion over wine and cheese, where we feel the need to boost our confidence with some intellectual conversation. For now, what jumps out at me is the relevance of this in the context of people abandoning dogs. 
Many owners who abandon their dogs somehow justify that it’s in the dogs best interest. But what they seem to overlook is how attached a dog really gets to it’s humans. That attachment could be so intense that the dog may never recover from the loss. But when I do a second pass at that though, I wonder if in situations where owners are willing to get rid of their dog, they perhaps never bonded enough with their dogs to start with? Perhaps it really is in the best interest of such dogs that they find owners who give the dog a chance to build such a bond? I don’t know. But what I do know is that dogs are capable of intense bonds that can be potentially devastating for them. Dogs and potential pet owners might benefit greatly if potential pet parents were aware of this and opened their hearts to these bonds and experienced the pristine unadulterated love that is capable of emerging. When dogs and their humans “fall in love”, then we perhaps have the least possibility of dogs being abandoned. Though, falling in love comes with the price tag of a possible heart break. And dogs do not deal too well with heart break. But what do they say about love? “It is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all”?

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