Curious Journalism

Journalism with a passion

Nadyat El Gawley,

January 3 2020

Dogs are considered now to be members of our families, and for some of us that’s a welcome change.   But why do we connect with them so deeply? And does the dog benefit at all? Some Sydneysiders reflect on why.

Short haired dog digging. Creative Commons

If you’re older than 30, then you probably remember a time when our obsession with dogs didn’t exist. People adopted dogs, but the relationships we had with them weren’t as intense.

And so it was back then, in the decade of greed–the 80s–that I was taken by surprise when a friend told me her dog had saved her life.   It was a force I didn’t understand at all, and not because I didn’t have dogs. As an adult, canines have always been in my life and I was in awe of them.  But the intensity my friend talked about was an emotional threshold I’d neither considered nor crossed.   

Claude

I’ve had my dog Claude now for fifteen years, and he fills a space in my life no one else can. He kept me sane through the bewildering grief of losing my mother over a decade ago.   He was my constant companion, and the antidote to the darkness I was falling into. When it got too much and the weeping wouldn’t stop, I would be comforted by this beautiful creature who offered no judgment–just patience, trust and comfort.

All he asked was to be walked, fed, and treated with respect. And he wanted to play, distracting me from myself–from the constant urge to shut the world out, to hide, and sink into the enticing deep depression I was succumbing to.

It took me a long time to see him. The grief was blinding, and it was many months before I could fully appreciate the privilege of having a dog.

Claude saved my life.  And so I want to know what it is  about dogs that make us bond so closely.

Claude is a rescue dog , and his rescuers told me they took him when they saw how scared he looked in the pound they were visiting.

It’s complicated

There are many reasons, but one is empathy–both human and canine. And as Daisy Yuhas writes in Scientific American, the possibility of an inborn attraction. 

“Researchers led by Kristof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle,” writes Yuhas , “…have found neurons in the amygdala, an area [in the brain] involved in emotions, are involved in human [feelings] that respond preferentially to animal images.”

So on one level, you could argue that we’re bound together almost naturally. Witness the way many children delight in dogs, and run toward them to pat and interact with them.  I remember a little girl – perhaps just six or seven years old– running over to Claude, wanting to pat him.  She spent a few minutes doing that, before telling me that she was “obsessed” with dogs, but her mum wouldn’t let her have one just yet.

Adults too. This would not be news to any dog owner as the world is indeed different with our furry friend. People stop and talk to the dog, smile and say kind words before going on their way. The dog changes that moment for both humans. The owner gets to meet people, and the people get comfort and joy from interacting with the dog.

But why and how we connect with dogs isn’t a straight answer for Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the university of Colorado, Marc Bekoff.  He says not all humans bond with. or even like dogs, And those who do, need to be aware of the demands we place on them.

“A lot of homed dogs are very highly stressed because we ask them to adapt to our life,” he says.  “You know, when they play, when they can eat, when they can sleep [and] when they can hang out with their friends.”

However, he observes that “when people realise their dogs need more than they’re getting, they make those changes.”

 “I think the people who do like dogs, bond with them because of shared emotions. They can empathise with the dog, they can feel for the dog, and they also want the dog to have the best life possible.”

Dog portraits

Inner Sydney based visual artist Judith Johnson credits her grandmother with her love of dogs.  Ms Johnson who grew up on a farm, says both she and her father in particular, inherited her grandmother’s love for the dog.

Sitting in her studio, with her cocker spaniel Minnie by her side, Ms Johnson tells me that her father taught her much about “caring for animals, and [how to] treat them with dignity.”

Judith with Minnie . Photo: N. El Gawley

Johnson paints portraits of dogs, but she began as a human portrait artist. One day, she added a cocker spaniel to a painting, and “that started the whole thing,” she said.   Friends asked her to paint their dogs, and so began a new direction in her art.

“Suddenly I realised that dogs and their owners were so much easier and more enjoyable to paint because they [the dogs] don’t have any attitude as to what they look like.”

“Dog owners, dog lovers, animal people, are very laid back, relaxed, happy normal people and it’s just nice to the story of the dog.”

‘Quick’…a special needs companion dog for a lonely little boy with Cerebral Palsy.
  The halo is his job, and the boy is the heart inside the lead. Photo: Judith Johnson

Ms Johnson has developed a technique for her paintings – she interviews each dog before she starts a portrait.  And while it might amuse some owners, Johnson says it’s crucial to developing empathy and to producing something that is more than a photograph.

“ I have to meet the dog, understand the dog, connect to the dog and also I want to hear the stories of the dog in your life. That’s really my intention.”

The Sydneysider has spent time learning about the story of the dog and says because they are pack animals, those we take into our homes “see humans as the pack or the tribe”.  And that connection is what comes through her work.

“That’s what I find when I’m doing a painting… through the eyes, through the expression, the dog has a love for us which is unconditional and I try to put that in.  I mean it’s hard, but it’s a lovely thing to put that into the painting.”

Nelson’   on guard against motorbikes. Photo: Judith Johnson

Just have to have a dog

Australians are dog lovers no doubt about it.  Animal Medicines Australia estimates in its 2016 Pet Ownership Report, that  38 percent of households have at least one dog with an average of 1.3 dogs each household. Together, Australians share approximately 4.5 million companion dogs with gen Y and women being the biggest groups with  non human animal companions.

While it’s not always clear why we have dogs, some experts say it’s about qualities in us such as being extroverted and seeing the dog as part of the family. 

At a busy inner west café, I meet with Julie Mathers, her dog Tilly and her friend, my neighbour, Isabella for a morning coffee.    For Ms Mathers, who recently got Tilly, having a dog was about purpose.

She  says the caboodle has “changed her life”.  The high school teacher had led a busy life as an adult and hasn’t had a dog since she was about 17.  She’s now in her fifties.

Julie’s priorities changed when she got Tilly.

“Well I was too selfish to have a dog in my life and I was doing too many things,” she says.  “[I] was living overseas, and then I ended up being on my own for quite a long time, living on my own. “

Ms Mathers is attentive to Tilly, has packed some kibble for her and has a water bowl ready.  It’s a hot day, and Tilly sits on her lap for part of the time.

“Before it was only me and I didn’t worry about anyone else too much, Now I make sure that I’m there for her,” she said. “My life now has become [centred around] what’s good for her and not really what’s good for me. It’s like , I stay home or I say I can’t really go there because it’s going to be too long, and I want to be home to look after her.”

Over skype from Colorado,  Professor Marc Bekoff says the best bonds form  when humans respect  dogs as sentient, feeling beings and understand “they’re going to have to make trade offs in their lives.

 “I write a lot for Psychology Today and I recently wrote an essay that apparently a lot of people liked: Are you really sure you want to share your life with a dog? “That’s getting back to first base if you will, in the sense that before you get a dog,  you better be  sure that you want to share your house and your heart with a dog.

 “I am a fan of asking pointed questions and to make people think about the decision they’re making when they decide to bring a dog into their house.”

Why and how we connect with dogs is a complicated question.  But one answer could be empathy in both dogs an humans.
Why and how we connect with dogs is a complicated question. But one answer could be empathy in both dogs and humans. Image: Creative Commons

Times are a changing

Both Johnson and Mathers grew up at a time when the dog had a different life and lived in the backyard. We understood little of their inner world, or their emotional complexity, and it shaped our relationship with them. Today, professor Bekoff says “we know enough now to put the word out about best explanations for what dogs want and need.”

Johnson is in her late seventies, and says the biggest change over the last 50 years has been that the dog has gone from being the “outsider to the insider.”

“They slept outside, in a kennel and they were very very subjugated, but they had  role, a position as a watch dog, as a companion– but not as a bed companion. And so now over time the dog has become like a baby, allowed to sleep on the bed with the owners which I don’t agree with at all.”

“It was more of a disconnected connection,” says Mathers who grew up with labradors and Germen shepherds.   “When I felt like patting the dog, I would pat the dog or I’d take the dog for a walk.  The dog was there, but it was never an emotional attachment.”

Our ideas have changed she says. “The dog was not allowed in the bedroom, was not allowed on the carpet… not allowed to be sitting at the table like I’m doing now.

“Tilly comes with me everywhere I go. She’s in the car, sits in cafes with me. But we didn’t seem to do that so much 20 years ago…you kinda went out and left your dog at home.”

Other, perhaps noteworthy changes include strata laws in NSW which allow a more pet friendly approach to living in units. Before these laws came into effect in 2016, Sydney based Jamison Strata Management noted on their website that “many pet owners were being forced to choose between keeping their pet and living in a strata building.”  With 20.7 percent of the population in NSW living in units, these changes could not have come soon enough for many.  In its Pet Ownership report, Animal Medicines Australia reported there was “a strong desire for pets among those living in apartments or units.”

It’s something that Ms Mathers who lives in a unit, credits with her ability to have Tilly, and notes how that has allowed single people living in units to have the companionship of non-human animals.

Tender Moments

Back in Johnson’s inner city studio, I ask if in her years of painting portraits of dogs and their people, a story had stood out for her? After a little pause, she says the most poignant moment was painting a portrait of her husband Arthur, and their previous cocker spaniel, Trubby.

“He was holding her and looking outwardly from the painting,” she said.  “There’s a lot of love [and]  I called it true love …because he was absolutely besotted with that dog.” 

True Love. Photo Judith Johnson

Trubby was “dignified and elegant” said Johnson, but she laughs at her description saying it sounds like she was talking about a person.  So, I ask her about that– about the anthropomorphising of animals that we do, and how as some have argued, we’ve infantilised dogs, and blunted their nature because they live so much on our terms.

“I like the dog to be a dog and a cow to be a cow,” she said after telling me that as a child she rejected circuses because of the way they treated animals.   “ I still think of my dog as someone who’s given respect, not someone who’s dressed up, their dog-ness being reduced to something that’s shallow.”

So I’m curious, what advantage is there for dogs in this dance with humanity? Is the bargain equal?

Predictably, the scales are lopsided, and according to Bekoff, the relationship we have with dogs doesn’t always benefit them. Although it can enrich their lives with challenges and different experiences. But more importantly, it has a global significance: it can teach us compassion and empathy toward other animals.

“We can learn that each and every life matters,” says Professor Bekoff.

“I like to call it bridging the empathy gap.  We [become aware of] how we interact with non-dog animals if you will, from the way people are interacting with dogs.  That’s why I’ll often ask people “would you do that to your dog?  What if that animal were a dog?”  It gets a conversation going you know; it brings it home.”  

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