Writer Amy Swales delves into why we have such a strong bond with our canine pals - and urges people to consider adopting a Staffie
Last October, I perched on a chair waiting for a dog to be walked through a door, knowing that all things considered, he would probably be coming home with me.
A couple of minutes later, said dog toddled in and immediately plonked himself down on my foot, like we’d sat in those exact positions a thousand times. And my husband and I couldn’t keep the silly smiles off our faces.
That evening, after a lot of excited running around the flat (I can't confirm or deny whether this was restricted to the dog) the three of us sat on the rug and looked at each other. “I think I love him already,” I said. “Properly. Is that normal, do you think?”
It appears we are a nation of dog lovers. There are nine million in our homes. A recent survey carried out by insurers Petplan even saw some owners admitting they treasure their pets more than friends and family – with a whopping 44.4% of respondents putting their animals over their own dear mothers, and over 70% believing their pet is more affectionate toward them than their partner.
Sue Perkins published a tribute to her dog Pickle in January last year, and the eloquent, funny and painful account of what it is to be a dog owner resonated so much that it was doing the online rounds again this week.
We love our dogs fiercely, so fiercely that we spend our money, adjust our lives and constantly, constantly bag up poo (except that time I had to improvise with a Johnny Bravo paper plate I found in the park) and it's all for another species.
I want to know why we feel so strongly and what we get in return. I also want to urge you to consider rescue dogs - especially much-maligned Staffordshire Bull Terriers - and explore how our furry friends adapt their behaviour to suit us.
But I suppose ultimately what I'm asking is this: just what is it about dogs?
Our race’s relationship with canines stretches back at least 15,000 years, and likely even further than that, establishing an unusual bond over several millennia.
“There are very few species of animal that mankind has been able to domesticate and of these, the dog has developed a unique relationship with us,” says Lynn Barber, Head of Canine Behaviour and Training at rehoming charity Dogs Trust.
“It’s now believed it's most likely that ancestors of our domestic dogs integrated themselves into our lives very gradually by choosing to live close to us, taking advantage of the ‘easy pickings’ wherever humans lived.
“The domestic dog became much more diversified when mankind began to develop agriculture and dogs were selectively bred to be used as sheep or cattle herders, guarders, sight or scent hounds and terriers who kept our food reserves free from vermin.
“It’s only in the last few hundred years that we have put more effort into selectively breeding dogs for aesthetic reasons.”
It’s fair to say we’ve taken full advantage of the various ways dogs can benefit us, over and above keeping our sheep in line.
They’ve become our eyes and our ears, sometimes even our rescuers, and our warning sensors for everything from seizures and cancer to drugs and bombs. They provide mental and physical assistance to those who need it most, while for millions of people they’re simply companions. Except there’s nothing simple about it.
My husband and I did not feel there was something missing in our lives before Charlie sat on my foot in Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, but he has certainly enhanced our lives in ways we struggle to articulate – there was an instant bond I can truthfully tell you we recognised on that very first day.
This is despite the fact that he has actually curtailed them in some respects, bringing with him a responsibility to go home, to go to the park, to plan in advance: something of an end to spontaneity and leisurely lie-ins.
Why do we connect in such an intense fashion? Some believe it’s as simple as dog owners needing uncomplicated affection from a dependent or (consciously or sub-consciously) wanting replacement or practice children.
It's hard to argue the case when some quite obviously treat their pets as offspring (I can't say I didn't baulk seeing a woman with a Miniature Dachshund in a pram recently) but Harley Street psychologist Dr Becky Spelman tells Stylist.co.uk it's not a fair judgement – though that's not to say it isn't part of the deal for some.
“Many families have children and dogs, so it is not true to say that all dog ownership is replacing kids or even practice parenting,” she explains.
“However, for people who for whatever reason do not have children, the unconditional love of a pet can be a very good coping mechanism for the innate desire for children, which many state they feel.
“It’s also worth noting that families with dogs have a very effective way of teaching kids about mortality and loss, with research suggesting kids who have felt and come to terms with the loss of childhood pets are better at dealing with bereavement later in their lives.”
There is an element of our inbuilt desire to care for something too – and to be cared for, even as we crave independence. “The human need to nurture and be nurtured is directly addressed with a pet, especially with a dog, which loves unconditionally,” she explains.
“Dog owners report strong nurturing feelings, but also feelings of being nurtured, particularly at times when they are physically or emotionally weaker than usual.
“Dog owning also impacts on our need for companionship and group survival. Humans are something of a dichotomy – we value our individualism and actively seek solitude through individual living, but also crave the safety of the group. A dog in the house taps into this inbuilt desire.
“It also helps some introverted people to express more extrovert behaviours with dogs that require clear leadership.”
Dr Spelman disputes the belief that dog owners are simply needy. “Firstly, the word ‘needy’ is not helpful in understanding the motivations and emotional depth of another human being.
“As for the notion that people with dogs display these character traits, I would strongly disagree, and suggest the dog owning community is so vast that it is difficult to pick any key defining characteristics aside from strong feelings of love towards their pet.”
“There's a great deal of psychological benefit”
Dr Spelman, who has recommended dogs as a form of therapy to clients, says dog ownership actually benefits us emotionally and socially, and is life enhancing in ways other than directly fulfilling the needs mentioned above.
“Human beings are social animals and share broadly similar pack-mentality characteristics with dogs. When this is combined with our instinct to care for beings we perceive to be delicate, we find there’s a great deal of psychological benefit from caring for a dog.
“Pet relationships help people form better relationships with other humans, and actually statistically increases the likelihood of random interactions with other humans, as the dog-owning world is particularly sociable.
“Caring for a dog well is a particularly good method of helping people overcome social anxiety, and has been known to rekindle older people’s desire for life, sometimes extending ages.”
A fellow dog walker in the park the other day (Dr Spelman isn’t kidding when she says it’s sociable) told me he feels he gains something from seeing the uncomplicated nature of a dog's enjoyment of life.
Dr Spelman confirms this is something many experience. “The simplicity with which dogs approach joy is a lesson to us all - namely, to appreciate what we have in the moment. Dogs focus upon the immediacy of making the most of the opportunity available to them right then.
“Many dog owners report that seeing this on a daily basis helps them increase their ability to also do this, which is one of the key pillars of happiness.”
THEY CALL IT STAFFIE LOVE
I must confess something about my dog that upsets a lot of people. Charlie is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. And for a nation of dog lovers, we don't appear to be that fond of them. “He seems really sweet, but let's be honest: he looks rough,” was the response from one friend. Others tried to be polite, but were clearly worried about him being around their kids. And he hasn't eaten a full one yet.
There's a mistaken perception that Staffies are innately aggressive, and I've been taken aback at how widespread it is. Parents snatch their children away from us. People shriek and jump, or cross the road. One man in the park was so bothered about Charlie being in his vicinity that he squared up and took a step toward us, for all the world ready to punch a dog.
It's a reputation undeserved and one we paid no heed to when we went to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home knowing it was likely we'd take one home - the breed makes up a massive 29% of the dogs they take in (overall, bull breeds make up 38%).
Carly Whyborn, Head of Operations at Battersea, confirms it's in no way a true reflection of the breed. “Staffies are gentle and friendly, but unfortunately, some see them as aggressive and out of control. This is nothing to do with the breed, but their owners. Staffies are keen to please and it is a sad fact that some people have taken advantage of their good nature.
“It’s tragic that this breed has gained notoriety as a status dog and is associated with fighting and gangs. A minority of irresponsible owners have sullied the name, and with backstreet breeding and Staffies trading hands for little or no money, we have seen a huge increase in the number dumped on the streets or at our doors.”
With thousands of Staffies in centres across the UK needing good homes, it's upsetting that many will be overlooked thanks to fear based on misinformation. The Kennel Club describes the breed as “extremely reliable, highly intelligent and affectionate, especially with children”. Whyborn debunks the notion that Staffies are naturally aggressive.
“I've seen people really taken aback at just how friendly, loving and intelligent Staffies are after they arrived with pre-conceived ideas.
“At Battersea, we firmly believe that it is the way dogs are brought up and the care and training methods used which determine the nature of a dog. Some do have distinct breed characteristics - Greyhounds are high energy for a short period and then very lazy the rest of the time, Collies are busy dogs who need their minds occupied, for instance - but any dog can be a weapon in the wrong hands.”
Our own experience is that Charlie loves people. He craves attention and physical closeness and will throw himself on his back for anyone, the tart. Not one person who has met him would describe him as aggressive or scary. I do firmly believe in monitoring all dog/child interaction as no-one can predict how an animal might react to accidental injury - I'd guess he's unlikely to tolerate a finger in the eye - plus Charlie has lots of energy, a hard head and no sense of direction. The thing is, this is just common sense and nothing to do with the breed.
In addition to the psychological benefits of owning a dog at all, Dr Spelman tells me there are positives from rehoming specifically. And it seems logical to me that if you're considering that, you shouldn't rule out Staffies - the ones arguably most in need right now.
Asked about the difference in the psychology of buying a puppy compared to rehoming a dog from an animal shelter, Dr Spelman says: “We live in a disposable age, where we can buy almost anything online, with much of our respect for the true value of things diminished by our relative abundance.
“When we buy a puppy from the internet or pet shop we're both supporting a highly unethical (and sometimes illegal) trade of puppy farms, and also following an urge from the disposable desire part of our psyche. By adopting a dog and giving it a second chance in life you are working from the part of your psyche that also operates our long term reserves of love, and research suggests you will be happier.”
And Lynn Barber says while it's stressful for dogs to change owner, the majority will adapt. “When you or I form a strong attachment to another person then we would find it upsetting and stressful if they were to disappear from our lives. Dogs can also go through this if they lose the person that meant most to them.
“This may lead to some anxieties or stress in a few dogs but the vast majority bounce back and form great attachments to their carers and then to their new owners. There are only a few individuals who need special treatment and understanding to help them through this transition.”
As Dr Spelman mentioned earlier, we perceive dogs as “delicate” beings – their innocence and dependence on us does have something to do with our strong emotional response. In fact, research has suggested that dogs have the same range of emotions as a toddler, and that it’s possible we love them in the same way we love children.
A study published in April this year showed that mutual gazing between dogs and owners activated the same hormonal response in both parties (a rise in oxytocin levels) as that between babies and mothers.
Evan MacLean, co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, commented on the research, pointing out that dogs display understanding of human gestures – such as pointing to something – that even our closest species relatives can’t.
“Chimps are just abysmal at those things, but dogs are not,” he said. “We’re so distantly related to dogs, but they have these human-like features. There are aspects of dog psychology that are very similar to what we see in young human children in ways that are totally different from other species we’ve studied.”
As any dog owner will corroborate, our beloved furry pals use these human-like features to great effect, employing any number of dirty tricks, such as puppy dog eyes, physical nudging and resting heads on knees. But how much is learnt behaviour to elicit treats and how much is what we’d identify as love?
Lynn Barber says: “Of course the provision of food plays a part, but they are intrinsically a social species and rely on us for social contact.
“This is most evident when we look at epimeletic (care-giving) and et-epimeletic (care-soliciting) behaviour of dogs towards us. Every dog owner will recount stories of when they’ve felt ill or fed-up and their dogs have cuddled in to them more than usual.”
And dogs have evolved in some ways specifically to integrate with humans. “Their digestive system is continuing to evolve to mirror our own, allowing them to eat a more varied diet. Dogs have also developed certain behaviours solely because they live with us, the most noteworthy being barking.”
Petplan’s Pet Behaviourist Inga MacKellar agrees that a lot of individual dog behaviour is informed by owner response.
“Owners have varying expectations, so some dogs are extremely lively and interactive, while others can be calm and gentle and like to sit close and receive physical contact.
“Dogs are extremely quick to pick up on positive responses, resulting in certain actions becoming learned behaviour. Typically, for example, dogs learn that if they lay their head on an owner’s lap and look up, the owner will stroke it. If a dog brings a toy to the owner, the owner will throw the toy.”
Lucy Ross, Head of Training at Pets Corner, expands the point. “Some of the most common manipulation techniques dogs use include just staring with those ‘puppy dog’ eyes when they want something. It piques our interest because they just look so darn cute that often we respond verbally, thus giving them our undivided attention.
“This gives the cue to try to get us to move in the direction that they want. They will also often sit where they are not supposed to, for example on the furniture, just to see if they are told to move, or to see if the owner finally allows it to stay there. They also ‘kiss’ their owner by licking, which we see as affection and often give in because we thrive on making our pets happy and content.
“Certain other manipulation behaviours may be whining or a ‘crying’ sound that makes the owner run to see what's wrong, when there is no such thing. Mewling and rumbling sounds are quite common and they will even bark loudly. We as humans tend to rely on verbal cues, so we immediately jump into action and respond!”
However she adds that it’s not all manipulation. Dogs have social structures much like ours, and Ross says this transfers to any group - including cross-species: “To your dog, you are family. It is as simple as that.”
“To your dog, you are family. It is as simple as that”
What Charlie gives us feels like love. Comfort during the bad and joy during the good (and hilarious all the time). He's become a part of our family, and he's not a replacement or a practice anything: he’s an enhancement, another, a more.
If we’re lucky, he’ll be part of our family for the next decade. And we will count ourselves extremely lucky indeed.
Words: Amy Swales / Images: Rex Features, @amylaurenswales
For more information on rehoming a Staffordshire Bull Terrier from Battersea, visit the website here battersea.org.uk/staffies
If you're interested in rehoming dogs from a Wood Green centre, visit the website here woodgreen.org.uk
To find out more about Dogs Trust, visit the website here dogstrust.org.uk
Dr Becky Spelman is a Psychologist, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist & EMDR Practitioner, theprivatetherapyclinic.co.uk