Most people feel great affection for dogs. Dogs are friendly and warm and seem to worship the humans with whom they live. Dogs run into burning buildings to rescue humans. And people who offer their dogs little to nothing in the way of material support, shelter, or even kindness, can nonetheless rely on their dogs to remain faithful and loyal. Dogs exhibit the sort of ecstasy and excitement when their humans arrive home that 1960s teenage girls displayed for the Beatles. Dogs manifest a sort of religious fervor around their human companions.
Scientists and hobbyists have authored many books on the subject of how and why dogs behave the way they do. A recent popular work on this topic explains to the reader that dogs love lots of different species. Nature simply programs canines that way. While animals of other species might be suspicious, aggressive, or frightened around an animal of a different family or genus, dogs are friendly toward everyone. Other theorists have proposed that dogs are very intelligent or have evolved to be able to read humans’ emotional cues. Though I am not an ethologist or any other kind of scientist, I want to suggest that these and other theories about dogs do not truly get at the behavioral oddity of Canis Lupus Familiaris, the thing we love most about them, their extreme devotion to the humans who own them.
While many dogs are friendly to strangers, be they man, dog, or duck, a dog is most fully enthralled with the human or humans who take care of him. And the intensity of their bond only increases with time. Consider how different that is from the ways in which we humans tend to be around the other humans in our lives. For the most part, our attachments grow more profound as we spend more time together, but we become less excited when we see one another once we are fully comfortable with each other. We are the same way about material acquisitions: upon first purchasing an iPhone, we might have been very excited, but as we got used to seeing and using the phone every day, we probably felt less thrilled when we looked at it. Thrills accompany novelty. Look at a phone that has belonged to you for months, and you will not have that experience. And seeing a friend or lover who has been part of your life for years, while satisfying and wonderful in its own way, generally does not offer the thrills of flirting with an attractive stranger. That may be why pop stars dating stunningly beautiful men and women seem to regularly cheat on their partners.
People who have both dogs and human children often remark on how they wish their human children were as enthusiastic and delighted when spotting their parents as the family dog is. No one in the world greets us each day with the sort of fervor and energy that characterizes our pups. We are like the drug for which they never develop a tolerance. But why?
We accept and even welcome the behavior, I suspect, because we like it so much, but it is quite peculiar. Are we truly magic to our dogs? My theory is a little different from what some have suggested. While I agree that dogs are generally comfortable and friendly with many different types of creatures, I would observe that their behavior toward their own humans is of a different order. What it brings to mind is not children and their parents or boyfriends and girlfriends or friends. It strikes me as more like Stockholm Syndrome, the condition that afflicts many kidnapped people and other abuse victims in which they form an attachment to their abuser, an attachment sometimes called a trauma bond. Abuse victims who feel this intense attachment will react to punishment by seeking the abuser’s approval and by craving closeness rather than trying to escape the abuse altogether.
“But not everyone abuses their dog!” you may be thinking, and I agree. What creates the trauma bond may turn out not to be the intention of the abuser (at least not always) so much as the experience itself.
When we first bring home a dog, we typically spend a lot of time with him, showering him with attention and affection. Then we return to our usual routines, which may mean heading out the door in the morning to school or work and leaving the dog all alone. Though we may think of our homes as calming places of refuge, the dog, suddenly by himself, feels anxiety. Where did his new friends go? Will barking very loudly for hours bring them back again? Will scratching at the door make it possible to escape this very large cage and find his friends? Are they punishing him? What should he do to make the punishment stop?
The dog, in other words, experiences a combination of house arrest and the silent treatment. Imagine if you went home with people you loved and with whom you felt safe. Then they locked you up in their home and left you there. You had no idea when they were returning, and if you said things or wrote something down, you heard nothing but silence in return. You would likely experience tremendous anxiety and distress. Then, when someone came through the door to interact with you, let you go outside, feed you, and cuddle with you, you might come to worship that person and feel utter exhilaration at the sight of him. The next day, however, upon his leaving, you would once again feel a sense of anxiety and great loss. After all, you would have no guarantee that he would return again, and he will ignore all of your cries and attempts to reach him, only suddenly to appear like a savior long after you have quieted down in despair.
Over time, the experience of the silent treatment behind closed doors with no one else with whom to interact can lead a victim to idolize the powerful person who comes at unpredictable times to relieve the anxiety and misery and bring joy and excitement in their place. Everything seems better than wonderful until, with little warning, it all disappears again.
Many of the things that humans take for granted and that give them agency over their days are entirely unavailable to dogs. Humans have the power to open the doors in their homes and therefore feel sheltered from the world when they go inside and turn the locks. Dogs, by contrast, usually want to go outside and feel somewhat confined when brought back inside. They may like being outdoors, if they do, because it means they can spend time with the human they worship. Being indoors, by contrast, means that maybe their human will leave, at which time the inside of the house may feel a lot more like a lonely enclosure than home.
The lack of control over where they are and where they can go, coupled with the isolation they feel as social animals, along with their inability to let their humans know of their distress in real time, predictably combine to yield a state of agitated misery. Imagine living like that, as an adult. It is the life of a trauma-bonded individual. And because the despair is so profound, so is the excitement and joy when the human returns home from work/school/shopping. When I leave the house for a minute and return, my dogs are as elated as when I have been gone for hours. I know that it is wonderful to see me, but no one besides my dogs is consistently elated at my appearance on the scene. Though I call the dogs my furry children, my human children barely notice when I come home.
I must admit that I enjoy how utterly thrilled Blue and Chewy are when reunited with me. Their excitement is a pick-me-up when I have had a trying afternoon, and it is infectious when I am in a good mood. It is like they are on drugs, some mix of dopamine agonists like cocaine and relationship stimulants like oxytocin. They are fun and a bit manic. If I’m in a terrible mood, their behavior is irritating. But the one thing it is not is normal. It is weird to be that excited to see someone that you see every single day, and we know it is abnormal precisely because no one who is not prematurely grieving our loss behaves in that way. If one of my daughters ran to me and hugged me the way the dogs do, I would ask her what’s the matter.
We can study dogs all we want and observe how much friendlier they are than other species and how much more comfortable with strangers of every type. (Never mind the fact that many dogs do not fit that stereotype at all). What stands out about them, however, is what they do for our egos, acting as though a rock star has entered the house every evening and being plainly depressed and dejected every morning. They are too happy to see us. It is a sign of what their days are like. We are rescuing them from misery when we return to their side, and we are the ones to impose that misery when we go.
Perhaps dogs wonder whether we are punishing them with solitary confinement for hours on end. I prefer not to think about such things because I am not sure what I would do differently. But my preference doesn’t change what now strikes me as the truth about dogs. They are trauma-bonded to us, as any human prisoner in their place might be.