Dog Love: Why Does It Even Matter?

What the heck is love, anyway? Sure, we all think we know. We like to spout things about self-sacrifice, everlasting affection, and deep romantic attachment. Everyone has his or her own concept of what it feels like to love someone and of what this love should consist. We are eager to sneer at celebrities who marry one day and divorce the next, superior in our knowledge that it could not have been “real” love. Even I talk about it like it’s some defined thing, a concrete noun with assigned meaning.

Naturally, my opinion on this meaning is the only correct one.

Wanna hear it? Probably not. But I am going to tell you anyway.

The One True Definition of Love, as told by Kristine, shaming all other definitions of love because this is the one true definition and everyone else is wrong:

  • There is no such thing as love at first sight, love must grow over time to be real, otherwise it is just silly infatuation
  • Love means wanting to say you are sorry, over and over and over again
  • Love means putting those you love first. In fact, it means being grateful you can put them first, without a smidge of resentment.
  • That being said, love is not unconditional. I don’t care what crap your mom told you. Love can end.
  • There are no varying degrees of love. You either love someone or you don’t. You can’t “kind of” love somebody or only love them when they behave a certain way.
  • Love and need are two very different things.

I am going to stop now because I think I have made my point. I have no doubt ticked some of you off. If not, I have ticked myself off so I guess that’s good enough.

The thing is, I don’t believe anyone gets to tell us what love is. It’s too personal. It is such a profound word for some of us and an inscrutable one for others. Half the time, I don’t think I understand it at all. All I can tell you is how it feels for me based on my own experiences. Given that your experiences are – we hope – very different from mine I don’t get to tell you how you feel. As someone who was told throughout her childhood that her emotions were wrong, I believe in a person’s right to choose how she labels her feelings.

Or even whether she names them at all.

The author of Something Wagging This Way Comes wrote an insightful and wise blog post today about a – in my perspective – less than insightful study. Ever since I read the science article this morning I have been ruminating over the concept of defining how dogs feel love. Pamela has already done an excellent job of breaking down the methodology and pointing out the scientific flaws. I feel the need to push it further.

In my opinion it is an act of hubris to assume we can ever understand the way a dog feels about his human or anything else in his life. Science can help us predict his behaviour and even – maybe – help us understand the way a dog might view the world. But I do not believe it is possible to know if my dog loves anything, be it me, the Am Staff at the dog park, or a stuffed Kong. I just don’t feel comfortable labelling any of her emotions with certainty. I believe she feels them, I just don’t know if it is my place to determine what they are.

Love is too complex of an emotion, too intense. That doesn’t mean dogs don’t feel it – I believe they are capable of so much more than we will ever be able to prove in a lab. However, I don’t know if it is possible to interpret their actions as something so complicated without hearing from them first. It seems to be doing them a disservice.

No doubt you are narked again. If you are the kind of person who reads late night blog posts written by people who spend too much time pondering canine philosophy, you are the kind of person who puts her dog first. I know your dog appreciates it. I know your dog is happy when you are around. It is possible your dog loves you. It is just not my decision to make.

Nor is it a decision for scientists in a lab to make.

Do I think Shiva loves me? No idea. As I said in my comment this morning, it doesn’t matter to me if she does. In fact, based on my own definition above, I hope she doesn’t. I don’t want her to put my health and happiness before her own. If there is a threat, I want her to run away as fast as she can so I can handle it. It isn’t her job to protect me. What is more important to me, and what is easier to gauge by her behaviour, is that I do think she trusts me.

Trust is much less complicated than love, and – in many ways – is much easier to define. Shiva shows me she trusts me by letting me handle her, even when she is in pain. She never flinches from my touch, even when she doesn’t want to be pet. When she used to be terrified of water bottles, she now will drink from one as I pour it into her bowl. She lets me reach into her mouth, even when she scooped up something super yummy from the ground. Shiva looks to me when uncertain and dives forward when I say something is okay.

For Shiva, I am a means to getting what she wants. But I am also someone safe, someone she relies on to care for her when she is feeling unwell I don’t need to call it love in order to feel proud that I can provide her with what she needs. My love for her is more than enough for the two of us.

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10 Comments on Dog Love: Why Does It Even Matter?

  1. Lilli
    March 12, 2014 at 12:41 am (4 months ago)

    Love is difficult. Actually, I have understood that we still don’t know what is love for humans either. It’s still a somewhat of a mystery. Sure, it is some kind of brain activity and some substances that rush in our body. I haven’t read the study yet but I could imagine that scientists have found those same activities and substances in dog too and because they mean “love” in human, they might also mean “love” in dog. We are just guessing here again. They just needed to make up some word for the action for people to understand. If I remember right, in humans, the brain activity and substances that rush in our body are quite the same in some other feeling too than love, so it’s very confusing, but because we are ‘feeling’ the difference we know (in some cases) what it is (is it good or bad, for example). And because humans do have an urge to name things they have started to call certain feeling as “love”, even when they didn’t know what it really was. And nowadays I don’t think we still know. But because we don’t have another good explanation for the activity and substance rush, we call it “love” (or something else). And it’s quite wonderful that they have studied dogs too and found out that they aren’t emotionless machines but they have feelings too. We can’t say for sure, what those feelings are, because they can’t tell us. But we see that there is brain activity and some substances involved, and of course they compare them to humans because we are the most studied species in neuroscience etc. (and in my opinion, it shows from the behaviour too, I’ve never needed a study to know that dogs feel emotions :) I have always known that).

    Hopefully this wasn’t too confusing comment. I tried to explain it reasonably what I liked to say but my brain doesn’t like to work properly early in the morning xD
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  2. Pamela | Something Wagging This Way Comes
    March 12, 2014 at 1:00 am (4 months ago)

    I’d add to “love can end” that it has to be nurtured. And the act of nurturing love creates it.

    On one hand, I like that scientists are curious enough about the inner life of dogs to try to create tests that help us understand them more. But you’re right that all the lab tests in the world hardly matter a jot.

    In a sense, wondering about the thoughts of another creature whose life is so linked with ours is yet another reflection of our self-centeredness. The canine version of “so enough talking about me; what do you think about me?”

    Thanks for pondering canine philosophy. It’s at least as fun as Keirkegaard and far more fun than Kant. :)
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  3. Hannah@Eriesistibull
    March 12, 2014 at 8:00 am (4 months ago)

    Just lovely — we feel the same way about our pooches. We agree, there’s no way we can really know what our dogs are capable of feeling, but I do think they love us in whatever capacity they can — it’s probably closer to our feeling of trust…and that’s okay by me.
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  4. Jen K
    March 12, 2014 at 8:23 am (4 months ago)

    Great thoughts on the subject!
    I’m not one to try to suppose what mental faculties dogs may or may not have. I mean, it’s pretty clear they experience things like happiness or fear, but other – harder to define and observe – things like love or empathy – who knows.
    And I’m in full agreement – that my dogs trust me is way more important.
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  5. Kimberly Gauthier
    March 12, 2014 at 10:04 pm (4 months ago)

    When I saw the study, I didn’t bother reading it. I laughed and wondered how much money was spent to fund it, where did it come from, and how many dogs could it have saved. Of course our dogs love us – I have no doubt. I bask in their love daily – I’m addicted to it. They make us so happy.
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  6. Emily @ Adventures of a Dog Mom
    March 13, 2014 at 9:07 am (4 months ago)

    I loved Boomer and Dottie the minute I held them in my arms. I know they have some sort of attachment to me… I wonder though if they love me, I hope they do.

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  7. Sammy Sam
    March 14, 2014 at 9:03 am (4 months ago)

    Hi Kristine, I’m okay with your definitions of love. It works for you and that’s what matters for you. So that’s cool. My dad says that love is an interesting concept that has many definitions. Our definition of love? My mom and dad. That’s what matters to us.
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  8. Ruan | PuppyTrainingClassroom
    March 19, 2014 at 6:53 pm (4 months ago)

    Yeah, I know I love my pets more than I love some family members. Whether they love me more than that delicious treat they get whenever I feel to give them some love, I don’t know… It sure doesn’t feel that way when he gives me flat ignore when I don’t want to give it to him for some reason.

    Who can really tell what a dog feels but himself? No lab study or PhD student… guess yes, every single one of us can guess and you don’t need a PhD to do that.

    Thanks for sharing :)
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