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.”  

Animals: the abandoned mates of war

Nadyat El Gawley


August 2 2015

The older she gets, the more pessimistic she feels. To writer Jill Mather, there’s no cure for humans’ lack of respect for animals. And so since her retirement, it’s been her mission to record their stories. Specifically, those that perished in war.

Eight million animals died in the Great War. They carried soldiers and supplies, delivered messages, were shot at and killed.   Six million alone were horses, about as many as the allies’ military casualties. The difference is, as Ms Mather says, the horses didn’t volunteer.

She talks about how she had to give up her horse after she contracted polio at the age of 16. There’s a silence, and then she says: “I never really recovered”.

Looking out the window at Yarramalong Valley on New South Wales’ Central Coast where she lives, she can see horse and goat paddocks. The animals seem fine despite the day being one of those stormy rainy days on the east coast of New South Wales . Her love for animals and knowledge of the horse has driven her work. The former journalist and teacher has written five books including Forgotten Heroes, about the Australian Waler in WW1.

Walers are mixed breed horses bred for outback conditions. They are evenly tempered animals, reliable in tough environments.

“ We have a special affinity with horses,” she says. ”Let’s take the light horsemen who were on patrol in the Sinai for example. If those horses made a noise or snorted, or stamped, or called for a mate, they could reveal their position. So when a trooper put his hand on his neck, that horse knew to freeze.

“He also could move through those desert sand hills very silently. They could rely on one another. If the trooper was shot or injured in any way, there are many stories of horses carrying the trooper back to base camp.“

Horses Abandoned

Through the complex history of WW1, the fall of empires, battles won and lost, the horse remains on the fringes. Looking for their story has highlighted the “profiteering” of war for Alex McInnis, media and communications officer at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville. She sees evidence of that in the Australian Government’s refusal to bring home horses sent to war.

“The Government sold them,” she said.   “It was too expensive to bring them back. They abandoned them.”

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Horses of the Australian Light Horse Association at Tails From the Past , Addison Rd Community Centre. Photo with permission by Addison Rd Community Centre.

The Australian War Memorial records 136,000 horses being sent from Australia to France, India, the Western Front and the Middle East with the troops. At the end of the war, most horses were sold to European countries, and to India, then a British colony.

“At the end of the war,” says Jane Peek, Curator of Military and Technology at the Australian War Memorial, “most of the horses were sold onto Belgian farmers or unfortunately –the ones that couldn’t be sold on–there was a very strong market in horse meat and that’s still the case in Belgium and France. And the very best of them were selected to go to Britain for breeding.”

“In Palestine where the Australian light horse was operating, at any one time, there were 13000 horses. Of these, 2000 were put down because they were too old or debilitated.”

Only one horse, Sandy,  came home.

Bridging the divide

The old military barracks at Marrickville’s Addison Road Community Centre has been a space for multicultural services and alternative groups since the 1970s. In this small Inner West suburb, there’s a big history. The nine-acre site was the army’s major centre for enlistment in almost every conflict in the 20th century according to Sue Castrique, the Centre’s historian.

Young conscripts were sent from there for training before going to Vietnam and it was there where the Save Our Sons (SOS) movement protested against the war with its silent vigils.

But, it was not always about war. In its early days, the Centre was about the horses and the community. Rosy Porter, Program Co-ordinator at the Centre, is mindful of the layers of history. She, along with colleagues and volunteers helped to mark the site’s history and the Australian Centenary with an event about horses—Tails from the Past.

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Military drill, Tails from the past. Photo, Addison Rd community Centre ( by permission)

“It was actually the horses that bridged some of the divides between the community and the Army at the time [the first half of the 20th century], because the kids would come in to see the horses and then talk to the officers here. The officers would ride the horses up Addison Road and the kids would follow. The army actually had a close relationship with the community. “

Wars and Protests

But once the site became a community centre, political attitudes changed. Sue Castrique, says the organisation’s  outlook was the direct opposite to the “whitewashed huts and strict military discipline”.

“Many community centre members had been shaped by anti-conscription protests,“ she writes, “some were refugees from war zones. For some time, there was unease about recognising the site’s past as an army depot, or becoming the guardians of a history with the army’s conservative and militaristic overtones. ‘Historical’ was a word most often used when talking about leaking rooves, a soggy car park and the tangle of phone lines that made technicians weep.”

But things have changed, and today, organisers of Tails From the Past stress they want to bring both sides of the Centre’s history together.

Staying neutral

stirrup
Stirrup Cafe, Addison Rd Community Centre. Photo: N. El Gawley

The Addison Road Community Centre is busy with activity. The black and white themed Stirrup Café is the first of the many huts on the site. Several community, arts and environmental organisations have made their home here.     To the left, there’s a truck unloading old furniture for the Bower Centre —a recycling outfit that runs the Men’s Shed in Marrickville. And further down, is the Centre’s office. A strong theme of social justice runs through the posters and notices on the wall. Outside in the crisp sun, planes fly overhead, dogs run through the grounds highlighting the centre’s dog friendly policies, and children chatter as they make their way to another activity.

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A dog-friendly workplace. Photo: N.El Gawley

People who went to the Tails from the Past event and whose views varied on the question of war had regarded the Centre as a safe space Ms Porter says.

“ I think it’s important, even of you disagree, to still know the history of war and …find out what it meant for the horses or for the men and how tough it was, so you can then reflect on war and what it means to go to war now today.”

“We had the Gallipoli Centenary Peace Campaign inside the hall as one of the stalls …but we had the Light Horse Association [who] do the re-enactments. We had diggers coming back [who] remembered the site. We had family members of diggers who passed away, and they were some of our honorary guests. We had a mixture of people coming together on both sides of those two views,” she said.

The Horse

horses
Tails from the Past, Addison Rd Community Centre, Marrickville, Sydney. ( by permission)

Phillip Chalker, president of the Australian Light Horse Association is easygoing and relaxed, having just bought some feed for his horses, and has pulled over into a car park for the interview. He is passionate about increasing awareness of the role the horse played in the Great War.

“ When I went to school (1973), I don’t remember ever, hearing about the light horse. It was always about Gallipoli and the Western front, “ he says.

“ There was more [that happened] in WW1 than Gallipoli and the Western front. We’re interested in educating and communicating with people about the role of the horse in the third front: Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq).” And after about 20 years of talking to groups and making contact with the community, Mr Chalker feels things are changing.

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War Horse, sculpture by the Bower Centre. Photo: N El Gawley

We owe more to animals than we know or remember as Jill Mather argues. Being forgotten by government after all they had meant–“the horses were all” she says–is to animal advocates, a terrible injustice of the war.

Horses suffered extreme thirst and hunger, carried heavy weaponry, were shot at and wounded horribly. The Hughes Government’s decision in 1918 was a blow to many.

“A lot of soldiers were prepared to pay for their horse. They would’ve paid anything to have got their mate back,” says Ms Mather.

But the soldiers had no power to influence a post-war government they had sold their horse to.

“When soldiers joined up in 1914, some of them came with their horse, in which case, the army bought the horse from them, “ said Ms Peek. “So it became army property. Now I think, there was a lot of resentment at the end of the war when the horses couldn’t come home.”

The story doesn’t stop there. There were other animals such as camels, donkeys, even elephants that were used for war fighting purposes and died in WW1 according to Jill Mather. She says mules delivered medical supplies, and carried gun parts “staggering on until they dropped dead and nobody cared”.

It is why she writes books about the cost to animals in conflicts, and why it has become her life’s passion.