Dogs are such remarkable creatures, each one a unique personality who can never be replaced. But as our lives unfold, a series of furry companions continue to bound into our hearts
The human-dog bond
Why do we love dogs so much? This is the question I have deeply pondered every time we have lost a much-loved dog.
I remember a near-death story I once read, about a dying man moving in and out of consciousness who roused briefly and said to his daughter “why am I back here? I was just walking with all the dogs of my life, let me go”. I thought, yes, that would definitely be very tempting.
And I don’t think I’m alone here. The meme of the ‘Rainbow Bridge’ is highly prevalent on social media; a mythical place between worlds where pet animals wait for their human friends to arrive so they can be reunited. At the moment the majority of households in the UK – 52% – have a pet, with 27% sharing their lives with a canine companion.
A bond that dates back into antiquity
The money we spend on our much-loved pets, and the hours of attention we give to them has sometimes been held up to ridicule as a modern affectation. But the much-celebrated memoirs of mid-20th century Yorkshire vet Alf White, writing as James Herriot, indicates otherwise. And one of the most powerful indicators that human-dog bonds date back over millennia is the copious reverent dog burials discovered by archeologists.
Some of the oldest carefully buried canine remains, frequently found in tombs alongside humans, date back at least 12,000 years. Some even pre-date the advent of agriculture. A Roman burial excavation revealed the remains of a dog that was estimated to be around 18 years old at the time of its death, with many missing teeth, indicating that it had been carefully fed by a loving owner.
Herriot reflects that while his Yorkshire farmer clients would reliably categorise their canine companions as ‘working dogs’, many did not fulfill any specific job on the farm other than to walk miles with the farmer as he went about his daily rounds. He recounts the inevitable anguish suffered by the whole family when a faithful farm dog moved towards the end of life.
Do dogs really love us?
Three decades ago, I had an ongoing debate with a biologist colleague about whether humans and dogs could really enjoy similar strong bonds of friendship to the ones that exist between humans. I held from the evidence available from comparative psychology that they could, he argued that, on the basis of biological evidence, this was unlikely. Since that time, there has been a huge increase in empirical support for my thesis, as research continues to indicate that dogs have far deeper affinities with us than are immediately apparent.
Dogs follow human gaze more closely than non-human primates; they pay attention to the expressions on human faces; they can detect emotion in the human voice and respond to human gestures. They attend more closely to humans with whom they are familiar, and there are some indications that they feel empathy for their human companions. Researchers Benz-Schwarzburg, Monzo and Huber commented in 2020: “the relationship between companion dogs and their human caregivers bears a remarkable resemblance to the parent-infant attachment bond.”
A personal account of love and loss
From my own perspective, my family is mourning our much-loved companion Sally, who reached the age of nearly 14 before succumbing to kidney failure at the beginning of July. Her lifetime companion Katie, of similar age, remains in good health and continues to be cared for very carefully. Before Sally and Katie came Melanie 1983–1996, Daisy 1996–2006 and Rusty 2003–2010, all beautiful dogs, with their own distinct personalities.
Our introduction to Sally occurred at our local Dog’s Trust, where she had arrived with Katie having been given up by their previous owner at the age of just over a year. We had been looking to adopt one dog, and we alighted on Katie as our potential adoptee. However, we were asked could we look at both dogs together, given that they had been admitted as a pair. As Sally came into the room, she immediately took a leap onto my lap and licked my face; within a week, both dogs had their paws very firmly under the table in our household, where they have been our loving companions ever since.
And if the border between life and death involves walking with all our dogs once more, all together, this is certainly something to look forward to.
When I completed my first novel, one of my friends, in her role as a critical reader asked: “why did you put a dog in the story?” I hadn’t really contemplated this before, and when prompted to do so I reflected “well, it just wouldn’t feel right to create a family without a dog”. And the evidence suggests that many families both contemporary and heading back into antiquity would agree.
We’re frequently being asked if we will get a ‘replacement’ dog. At the moment, we don’t have any plans. I think non-dog owners often don’t realise that each dog is an utterly unique personality who can never be ‘replaced’. So, I’m not sure that the question is phrased in the correct way. But I do think it is very likely that sooner or later, that as Sally very aptly did, another dog will get us by bounding into our hearts.
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