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Why your dog really DOES love you (and it's not just because of all the treats you give it!)

Some years ago I wrote an article for this newspaper about my feelings on having to put down my golden retriever, Macy. 

Your response was overwhelming, with many letters and emails expressing gratitude that an old vet like me, and a man at that, had talked openly about the personal pain I felt when my pet’s life ended.

One of those who had clearly read my musings was my client Michael, the owner of Molly, a collie-cross who suffered irreversible kidney failure last autumn.

‘You know how I feel, Bruce,’ he said when I arrived at the family home to give Molly a lethal injection. His wife Tricia stayed in the next room and Michael stayed with me — the opposite of what usually happens when I end an animal’s life. In my experience, men find it more unbearable to see their pets die.

As Michael bent over his old girl and I injected the overdose of barbiturate, his tears dropped like tiny pearls on her still face and he said something which got me thinking. ‘You know Bruce, she loved us as much as we loved her.’

Scientists find this idea hard to handle. They say only animals with ‘higher emotions’ — humans — are capable of love.

But Michael’s words came back to me this week when I read newspaper reports claiming the dog has been man’s best friend for far longer than anyone imagined. They described how archaeologists digging in Siberia and Belgium found two canine skulls dating back 33,000 years.

Unlike their wolf ancestors, who had long narrow jaws and large teeth, perfectly suited for grabbing their prey and tearing its meat off the bone, these creatures had far more blunted features with smaller teeth.

This indicated they were domesticated long before the archaeologists’ previous estimate of 15,000 years ago. The researchers suggest that, apart from using these early dogs as an emergency food source or to follow animal scent trails, our ancestors also valued them as companions — just as we do today.

And I believe the bond between our two species has been so enduring because dogs are as capable of loving us as we are of loving them.

This is not the wishful thinking of a sentimental old dog-lover. Studies have shown that when dogs are in physical contact with their owners, their brains release the ‘pleasure chemical’ dopamine in exactly the same way as our human brains do when we feel happy and relaxed.

Of course, scientists argue that dogs learn to use all their ‘cute’ emotional displays — including wagging tails, dropped ears and lips drawn back in a ‘smile’ — simply to get rewards such as attention, treats and access to the great outdoors.

The proof, they say, is that if our dogs were handed over to new owners they’d use exactly the same techniques on them. I find this argument rather silly.

Like all dog owners, I have been subjected to the big brown eyes routine. But the fact that dogs exhibit cupboard love in the hunt for a biscuit, doesn’t mean that they are not capable of purer forms of that emotion, too.

After all, scientists are happy to recognise different types of aggression in dogs: sex-related, territorial, pain-induced and so on. 

So why shouldn’t they recognise dogs also feel different kinds of love — such as love of games, love of possessions, love of family, love of us?

'Studies have shown that when dogs are in physical contact with their owners, their brains release the chemical dopamine'

One emotion which dogs certainly demonstrate is that inner calm and contentment we humans experience in the company of our loved ones, regardless of what they can provide for us in material terms.

This is something I have seen in all the golden retrievers I have been lucky enough to share homes with over the years, starting with Honey, a wonderful companion who belonged to my wife Julia before we married 40 years ago.

It was Honey who brought us together. I was working at a veterinary practice in Central London when Julia brought her in for treatment for an upset stomach.

Even after Honey had recovered, Julia kept popping into the surgery and I eventually twigged she was interested in me when she invited me out!

Oddly enough my son, the TV presenter Ben Fogle, also met his wife Marina through their shared love of animals. 

They were walking their respective dogs in a local park when their labradors, Inca and Maggi, introduced themselves to each other.

Before long their owners were talking, too, which leads me to wonder whether dogs cannot only feel love themselves, but sense where it might blossom in their human counterparts!

I digress. When I first began spending time with Honey, I became aware of the strong feeling of affiliation and attachment she felt towards Julia and then me, something I later saw in her successors Liberty, Lexington and Macy, and our latest golden retriever, Bean.

When I return from work, Bean wags her tail, drops her ears, nuzzles against me and brings me her favourite toy.

'Love is an important emotion in a sociable species, helping us to live and work well together'

She’s honest with her emotions; overjoyed to see me as one of the people she has developed an affectionate attachment to, whether I have food for her or not.

If I sit on a chair, she comes to make physical contact with my legs. If I am on the sofa, she hops up and nestles beside me (as I get older I seem to let my dogs get away with more than I used to).

This intimacy is reserved for Julia and me, the two humans she allows to share her home. And her love for us is just as obvious when I walk her in Hyde Park near our London home.

Like her predecessor Macy, she takes it upon herself to enforce a park regulation, unfamiliar to humans. This stipulates that: ‘All squirrels must return to their trees before 7am and remain in their trees until dusk.’

She disappears for ages in her pursuit of these poor creatures, now and then bounding back to me to lift her head and touch my hand before running off again. It’s as if this brief contact reassures her.

And although my wife won’t thank me for making the comparison, she does something very similar. Even after all these years of marriage, we will casually be walking along and then I’ll feel Julia’s hand in mine. It stays until Julia is distracted, by something in a shop or seeing someone she knows, and then it will be gone again.

I’ve never asked her why she does this but I suspect her behaviour, her emotional feeling, is a version of that experienced by Bean. ‘I’ve made contact with my human and I feel better. Now I’ll go off again.’

When you think about it, this makes sense in evolutionary terms. Like humans, dogs are gregarious animals, and love is an important emotion in a sociable species, helping us to live and work well together.

Not that all dogs are equally affectionate. Golden retrievers like Bean are working animals, specially bred over the centuries to help humans retrieve prey.

'It seems that we have also unwittingly encouraged in them a capacity for love'

In developing these and similar breeds, including spaniels and German shepherds, to work with people, we have selectively bred into them traits such as vulnerability and dependence.

And, in doing so, it seems that we have also unwittingly encouraged in them a capacity for love.

Interestingly, the DNA of breeds whose behaviour is the least dependent and vulnerable — including the chow chow, shar pei and Afghans — much more closely resembles that of the original and more independent Asian wolves from which all dogs are believed to be descended.

As with cats, which have evolved as solitary creatures, it’s perfectly possible for the dependency of such breeds to be increased through early learning.

But it’s not already there, perfectly formed, as it is in dogs like my much-loved golden retrievers, or Molly the collie-cross whose story I mentioned earlier.

Her passing, and the words of her owner, had quite an effect on me. At the time I was updating my clinic’s website, and I wanted to have a memory of Molly tucked away somewhere within it.

I decided to include a section called ‘In Memory Of’ where clients can leave pictures of dogs that loved their humans as much as they were loved by us

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