Dogs and why they change us

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.”  

Taking care of dogs with dementia: Kerry and Kenzo’s story


Kerry Mcmyler lives in Lancashire in the UK.  She’s had her dog Kenzo, a Labrador Collie cross for 15 years–ever since he was a puppy. She says he chose her from a litter of nine, barging past all of them to go to her.

When she moved away some six years ago, her parents took responsibility for Kenzo who was then about 10.  Then a couple of years ago, he started barking in the evening, and showed other signs of anxiety and restlessness. The family also noticed a pattern where these behaviours would start in the late afternoon and continue until midnight.

While researching Kenzo’s symptoms online, Kerry came across information about Sundowner’s syndrome in dogs, where dementia-like symptoms worsen at night. She says it all came together for her then, especially when the vet later confirmed it.

Sadly, Kerry’s father passed away last year, and it’s been an emotional time for her and her family. Kenzo was dependent on her dad for routine and connection, and she feels one of the triggers for his behaviour could be pining for her father.

Kerry is 44 and a healthcare Science Associate Practitioner in Microbiology (Infectious Diseases) with the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

She and her partner moved back to take take care of her mum and Kenzo, and I caught up with her during a very busy time.  We spoke via email.

What was your reaction to the diagnosis? What went through your mind?

How myself, my mum and my partner Sarah were going to cope with just losing dad. Was he just missing him? Was he grieving? I gave him an old jumper of dad’s but he wasn’t interested. He shows all the tick boxes of Canine Cognitive Decline (CCD) except the incontinence. 

What treatment –that you know about–is available in the UK for dementia in dogs?

Unsure at present. We have him on a calming pill called Xanax and he also has arthritis so he has 1/2 paracetamol twice daily. We have tried CBD (Cannibas oil) too which did help for a while but he has run out of this at present.  It does calm the barking down but not the restlessness. 

You say that at the beginning of Kenzo’s dementia, he was living with your parents who had a routine for him. But now this has changed because of your dad’s sad passing. Can I ask, how bonded was Kenzo to your father?

Very much so, he was the person that took him for walks. So his routine has had to change. I now take him when I arrive home from work. The shocking factor for me was mum was quite socially phobic having arthritis herself and relied on dad to help her get about.   However, whilst I was at work a few months ago, she decided to walk him on her own. It was a huge turning point for her [in] regaining her confidence.  Kenzo walked with her slowly and did not pull which was so lovely.


Image: Kerry Mcmyler

You’re the primary carer for your mum, and I wonder if you could describe what that means to you—being a carer.

It is a responsibility of selfless love. After dad passed away, my partner Sarah and I gave up our jobs 320 miles away.  I withdrew from my [university education]. I was one year off finishing my biomedical degree. However, sadly this hospital cannot fund or allow me time off to complete it. And now I have had a change of heart about where my life is heading to after much reflection.

I left my job of nine years in microbiology, and Sarah [left hers] in helping the elderly in rehabilitation. We moved in with mum so she did not have to sell the house, and to help her with daily tasks, bills and to give her company. I know we have done the right thing and it has set us all in a new direction. As an only child, I love my mum dearly and I want to make her time on this earth as special as it can be and make as many memories as I can with the time she has left. 


What’s the hardest thing about watching dementia in Kenzo?

His confusion, his age, his restlessness; falling off the sofa when he does not judge it correctly. We have said if he becomes incontinent we would put him to sleep. It is too much for mum to go through at 78 years old, having just lost dad too. I don’t want to lose her too. It would be the kindest thing to do however, for now, we are coping the best we can. 

How are you coping wth the demands of Kenzo’s care ?

It is tiring [to] after a 9-hour day…walk him [and] be up till midnight with his constant barking, crying and restlessness.   We try to reassure him but it is simply draining when you still have a daily life to live and chores to do. During the day he is fine, however, I work so I don’t really see the quiet side of him.  He is great with mum during the day. It is when I come home after 5 pm this starts. There has been quite a lot of tears and a huge relief when he is finally asleep. 

Kenzo in the snow
Image: K erry Mcmyler

How would you describe your relationship with him now?

I love him to bits.  He still greets me dutifully when I walk through the door of an evening but not of a morning. His eyesight is failing so I have to bend down to have eye contact with him but if I ask for a kiss sometimes I still get one off him. For that split-second, everything is back to normal. He recognises me, how can I possibly put him to sleep. Just another month…let’s see how we go…and the cycle continues. 

Kenzo and friends
Image: Kerry Mcmyler

You say that you will “know when it’s time”. It must be the hardest moment.  What will tell you that, and how do you imagine that moment in the future when you will have to say goodbye to Kenzo?

Heartbreakingly when he stops being responsive. Stops eating, drinking, or [becomes] incontinent. I would not want him to be in constant pain with his arthritis so if his back legs keep failing him there has to be a point where we end his suffering and do the kindest last thing a human can do. But we don’t say goodbye it is always “until we meet again”   


Image: Kerry Mcmyler

Christianity’s changing attitude toward animals

Nadyat El Gawley

The image is unforgettable, seared into my memory: pigs in utter anguish being gassed to death. You can turn away, but you can’t unsee the suffering on their faces.  A suffering that punches you in the heart. A suffering you can’t deal with and imagine for just a second that it can’t be true. It just can’t be.

ID 24602464 © Ihervas | Dreamstime.com

It’s a tiny snippet of a video on the website of the advocacy group, Animals Australia. There are others of course across the Internet—baby male calves being taken away (to the slaughterhouse) from mother cows, ducks and geese being violently fed in appalling conditions to produce foie gras, and shocking abuse of animals in some Australian abattoirs.

The cruelty of factory farming say animal advocates is on a colossal and indefensible scale; and it begs the question: Where did humanity get the idea that it could do what it liked to fellow creatures?

For some, the answer may be found in chapter one of the Biblical story of  Genesis where God gives Adam and Eve a mandate  to: “Subdue the earth  and have dominion over  the fish of the sea …the fowl of the air and every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

This has been a long-held and traditional Christian view, but leading Christian thinkers are now challenging it, and urging a new re-reading of Biblical teaching on animals. They’re also uncovering a  forgotten history of passionate campaigns for animal rights by many Christians.

A legacy of Christian animal activism

Rewind to the beginning of the 19th century,  and to what surprised Professor David Clough about Christianity and anti-vivisection campaigning.

Professor Clough teaches theological ethics at the University of Chester in the UK and says what’s been most striking about Christian activism for animals is how they engaged with the issue almost 200 years ago.

“ It was a real surprise to me when I started researching this area [to find] that it was Christians at the beginning of the 19th century who had become really concerned at the amount of animal cruelty going on, “ he told ABC Radio National’s The Religion and Ethics Report.  “ They were among  leading campaigners for changing the law to make animal cruelty illegal in Britain for the first time.”

It was leading evangelists such as William Wilberforce who campaigned for those laws, later joining with others to form the RSPCA.  Together with a group of Christians and a prominent Jew, Wilberforce, who had been a high profile campaigner for the abolition of slavery, founded the RSPCA in 1824, writes professor Clough in The Ark  the newsletter of UK based Catholic Concern for Animals.

However , he says that by the beginning of the last century with the rise of secularism in Western Europe and falling church attendance, groups such as the RSPCA wanted a broader reach and downplayed the Christian aspect of the organisation.  There was also, WW1 and the devastating human tragedy of the Great War to which Christians turned their attention.

The winds of change

There’s a scene in the 2016 Italian TV mini-series–Call Me Francis –where in the 60s, a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) intervenes to save a pig from the torments of a group of male students. This may have been a portend for the future where as Pope Francis, he releases his second encyclical Ludato Si, Praise be to you, in 2015. It’s one of the most far-reaching statements to come out of the Vatican on the place of animals in Christian teaching.  Significantly, it tackles traditional thinking about humanity being at the centre of creation with unchecked power over it.

“This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church, “ says the encyclical.

ID 120255764 © Mark Bosman | Dreamstime.com

“ Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (LS 67).

Ludato Si  was not the only important statement on animals to come out of Christianity that year.  In September, American evangelicals released their own statement on animal protection–Every Living  Thing.  It calls on Christians to avoid treating animals cruelly and was the result of a unique four-year collaboration between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the evangelical community.  Over 1000 evangelical leaders and scholars signed the document.

Yet the statement is prefaced by a declaration that it’s not doctrinal in nature,  it  doesn’t address particular issues, and says that humans have greater worth than animals.  So how significant is it in getting Christians to focus on animal rights?

Professor Clough’s research indicates that Christians don’t see the link between their faith and the treatment of non-human animals.  But he told Radio National  that  the US statement is of  considerable importance.

“Often, evangelicals in the US have been thought as most resistant to issues like concern for animals or wider environmental concerns,” he told the ABC. “But, avoiding treating animals cruelly in the current context of what we’re doing to animals in intensive farming systems is a really radical statement.

If we were to seriously investigate the implications of not visiting unnecessary cruelty on animals through our farming practices, perhaps 98 percent of the current products available would be off the table for Christians.”

Goats at Hart Acres Animal Haven, NSW. Photo N. El Gawley

How much does the public know?

“ One of the things I talk about is that commercial egg production ( including free range and organic egg ) relies on the killing of male chics because they are of no economic value,” he told The Religion and Ethics Report. “And so what happens to them, is that they are dropped live into a grinding machine called a macerator which thought to be the most humane way of dispatching them.”

How little the public know about  factory farms is a widespread concern.  In talking to many groups in the UK, Professor David Clough notes audience reaction when he explains what happens in the egg industry.

These chics are usually a day old, and billions are killed in this manner each year across the world. In Australia, about 12 million perish this way.

“That’s a shock to the audiences that I speak to.  You can almost hear an audible gasp in the room when I mention that kind of example.”

Cracks in the veneer

There ’s good news among all this in Australia. While the most recent statistics on worldwide meat eating trends, put Australia at the top in 2015; a year later , Roy Morgan Research found that just over two million of us (11.2 percent) are either vegetarian or vegan—up from 1.7 million in 2012.  Many are switching for health reasons, but some are making the change for ethical reasons, and for the animals. And Roy Morgan Research predicts the trend is set to continue.

Courtesy of Veganuary

Thousands of  Australians sign up for Veganuary, 31 days of vegan eating in January and the Daily Telegraph reports that according to data from Google Trends, Aussies are more interested in learning about vegan principles than they are about the much-hyped keto and Paleo diets.

“ What really strikes me in relation to farmed animals is that this is an issue which is a big problem, but one which we can have an immediate impact on,” professor Clough told RN’s Religion and Ethics Report.   “ If we stop consuming the products of factory farming, the animals will not be enlisted into these systems. And so through a daily practice of what we choose to eat, we can make a difference to the numbers of animals that are being forced into these cruel systems.”