Clive Wynne: ...that our dogs really do love us (and not just because we have a treat!)
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens. We're thrilled to talk with our guest on this episode, canine behaviorist, Clive Wynne, who explores the incredible relationship between people and dogs in his new book, Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You.
Jan: Clive, thank you so much for joining us.
Clive: Thank you so much for inviting me. It's a thrill to be with you this afternoon.
Jan: Tell us about your background and why you wrote the book.
Clive: I'm a psychology professor. I'm one of those rare psychology professors who's interested, not so much in the human mind, but in the minds of other species. For a long time, I studied the kinds of animals that people like me typically study, which is like rats and pigeons, small animals that fit easily in a laboratory. But there came a point where I wanted something more than that. I wanted to break out of my little laboratory life. I wanted to understand the mind of an animal that's so crucial to so many people's lives and to really get at the puzzle as to 'how did this animal get to be so important to so many of us?' I don't know, 15 years ago or so now, I quit the pigeons, I closed down the lab, and I started studying the behavior of the animals that rest at our feet, of the beautiful dogs that we share our lives with. That's my history in a nutshell.
Laura: What did you think originally about dogs and their capacity to love?
Clive: When I started studying dogs, nobody talked about love. We're a little scared of words like love, for a scientist, behavioral scientist. How do you measure love? What do we mean by love? It's part of everyday language, it's not part of scientific language. I never thought about it at all at first. At first, I never thought about it. When I started studying dog behavior and how dogs came to be fairly successful in human lives, people were saying that dogs have a special kind of intelligence, that it was their smart that gave them this skill. That was a secret of their success in human lives.
When I started out, I didn't have any particular reason to be skeptical about that. It seemed like a plausible story. If you live with a dog, your dog is certainly very, very good at figuring out what you're up to. Dogs are so good at reading people that it sometimes seems like they're psychic. When you get up from your chair and you're going to do something, it seems like your dog knows what you're going to do. I wasn't skeptical about that to start with. It wasn't until I'd been studying dog behavior for a few years that I began to think that, actually, the intelligence that dogs have, and it certainly is a kind of intelligence, it's not unique to them.
We were studying wolves that had been hand-reared by a group in Indiana called Wolf Park, who've been hand-rearing wolves for 40 years, they're really, really good at it. We found that actually hand-reared wolves can be just as sensitive to the things that people are doing as are our pet dogs. That got me thinking, "If it isn't their intelligence that makes dogs so successful, what is it?"
After a long period when I didn't have any dog in my life, it was around that time, now seven years ago, my wife and son got me a dog because they knew I wanted one. This dog, she's with me now, Xephos, she is so sweet. She's not smart, she's definitely not smart. But she is so sweet. I began to think, "Is there any chance that this sweetness of nature could be the secret of dogs success?" That's how I came to the position that I outline in my book, Dog is Love. It is actually this amazing, extravagant capacity, need, and desire to form strong emotional connections with us, also with other species, that is in fact the secret superpower of our dogs. It's not their intelligence. As I say somewhere, "It's not their smart, it's their heart." That's what's made them so amazingly successful in human society.
Jan: With your book being called, Dog is Love and subtitled, Why and How Your Dog Loves You, let's look at that. Why do our dogs love us? And how do our dogs love us?
Clive: The reason why they love us is because that's their secret sauce. That's their trick to get in the door. To speak like a biological scientist, that's their adaptation. Their way of adjusting, of evolving, of adapting to be successful around people, is to really care about people and to nudge people towards reciprocating that care, to repaying the emotional investment that dogs make in us.
The 'Why' is a historical reason. It's the path that they found to make the journey from wolf to dog, to make the journey from being a big, scary predator that hunts animals that are even bigger than itself, and survives in that way, to being an animal who survives by being a gracious, loving, fond part of our homes who we go out and buy food for because we perceive them as being part of our family. The ‘Why’ is in the history. The ‘Why’ is in the story of the journey from wolf to dog over more than 15,000 years ago. That's the 'Why.'
The 'How' is in many parts, in many, many parts. Those of us who share our homes with dogs, we see it every day. I'm talking to you from my home office now, I got home from the university about half an hour ago. I come in the door, and my wife, I think my wife loves me, from some distant room, she says, "Hi, honey." My son, my teenage son, there's a grunt from his corner of the house. But the dog, the dog rushes over. If I can't get the things out of my hands so that I can pet her and stroke her, if I can't get my hands free, then she'll start to cry as if she's in pain that I'm not recognizing that she loves me and how important it is to her that I recognize her, that I pay attention to her. Her love for me is, I don't want to say that my dog loves me more than my wife does, especially if there's any risk my wife will ever hear this. My dog certainly expresses, with far more vivid energy, how she feels about me. We've actually made that into an experiment.
My past student, Erica Feuerbacher, and I, we did an experiment where we actually gave dogs who've been left alone at home all day, they've been left with no human companionship, they've been left with no food, they have water. We set things up so when the human came home from work after being away for eight hours, when the door opened, the dog was confronted by a choice between their human and a bowl of food. As I said, the dog was hungry. Yet, we could see the dog notice the food bowl, looked at the food bowl. But given that choice after eight hours of separation, the dog actually wanted to be with the human more than they wanted to eat. It's a really simple, but striking demonstration of how much being in contact with their person matters to a dog.
The 'How,' we have a number of simple, but compelling demonstrations in the behavior of the dog that everybody who lives with a dog has seen for themselves. We can also see this in the dog's makeup of their bodies, we see it in their hormones. There's a wonderful research group in Japan who can measure the levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which people call the 'Love Hormone.' People call it the 'Love Hormone' because we can see how it's elevated when people are together with people that they love, like mothers with their infants, or adults who are in love with each other. When they look in each other's eyes, we can see how the levels of oxytocin, the levels of this 'Love Hormone,' how they spike in people who are in love with each other. This group in Japan, they've done this with people and their dogs. They find just the same kind of spikes in the levels of this hormone, in the person and in their dog. When the person and the dog who love each other sit together and look into each other's eyes, we see it in the hormones.
In Atlanta, at Emory University, there's a researcher, Gregory Berns, who has trained dogs to lie still in MRI scanners. MRI scanners can show us the activity in the living brain of a conscious-awake subject. Before Gregory Berns figured out how to do this, this was only ever done with human beings because the scanner is noisy and it's claustrophobic. With people you can explain, "Okay, this is going to feel uncomfortable, but it's not going to do you any harm. You can keep calm in here. This is okay." How do you explain it to dogs? Berns and his collaborators spent months training dogs to lie still in these scanners and to put up with it so that they could do brain scans of the brain of the dog fully awake when they introduce to the dog, signals that indicate that their owner is nearby. They find spikes in the activity of areas of the brain that are associated with reward. This indicates that the dog finds the proximity of their beloved human to be a rewarding thing. Even more powerfully rewarding, actually, than when they remind the dog they might give it a piece of food. We see in the hormones we see how our dogs love us. In their brain activity, we see how our dogs love us.
The research that I find most exciting, because I've been personally involved in it, is that we've identified particular genes that have changed in the journey from wolf to dog. These genes are associated with an enhanced and exaggerated level of all-loving behavior. We studied the genes in dogs and wolves, if they are mutated in this way in humans, lead to a very rare syndrome called Williams Syndrome. Williams Syndrome has a number of impacts on people. One of the most intriguing aspects of Williams Syndrome is that, people with Williams Syndrome tend to have, what they call in the scientific literature, they call it 'exaggerated gregariousness.' In the scientific literature, we don't like to use words like love, so we have to come up with scientific-sounding alternatives. 'Exaggerated gregariousness' is one of the scientific-sounding alternatives for an enhanced capacity for love. People with Williams Syndrome, they show this 'exaggerated gregariousness,' they show a great tendency to want to form strong, loving relationships. It turns out that when you compare dogs and wolves, you look at how their DNA, how their genetic material has changed on their journey from wolf to dog, some of the changes that have taken place involve these same genes, which in human beings lead to people who have an exaggerated capacity and tendency to engage in strong, loving relationships.
Laura: I loved reading about that. Are there certain breeds that are more capable of showing love than others? I'm curious to know what kind of breeds you did your research on?
Clive: The short answer to the question about breeds is probably, but we don't know yet. Our original study was done with a small number of mixed-breed dogs. Right now, some of my collaborators are out there testing a good number of dogs from a large number of breeds so we can find this out. If you read anything about breeds, if you go to the American Kennel Club and their descriptions of the breeds, some breeds are described as being more outgoing, more social, more friendly. Other breeds are described as being more aloof and maybe interested just in a few close friends, family and not so prone. It seems quite likely that we will find differences between breeds. But the study hasn't yet been completed, so we cannot say with certainty yet.
Jan: How are cats different from dogs when it comes to expressing love?
Clive: I have to be careful here because I'm a dog scientist, I'm not a cat scientist. When it comes to cats, I'm just an amateur. But I am an amateur with an opinion.
Jan: Okay, okay. We value it.
Clive: We have a cat right now. If you come to my house, you'll definitely meet my dog. You can't avoid meeting my dog, she wouldn't let you in the door unless you would greet her. Whereas it's quite possible to visit my home for many hours and not know I have a cat. Our cat, I don't think it's likely that this particular cat we have has the similar mutations for ‘exceptional gregariousness,’ for loving us. But on the other hand, I've had other cats who were much more affectionate.
Whereas dogs came into being, at least 15,000 years ago, maybe 20,000 years ago, some people even say 30,000 years ago. Cats only came into being domesticated, pet cats, only came into being much more recently, just a 2,000, or 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, much more recently. My guess is, my hunch is that cats are going through something like the same process, genetic changes that lead to a more affectionate being, but that they're not as far along in that process, that's my hunch about it. My hunch is that there are camps who have some of the similar mutations that make them very friendly, but that they're probably not such a large proportion of the total pet population. That's my guess. I hope somebody does that work because it will be really, really interesting to find out.
Laura: We've rescued a lot of dogs over the years. I've always wondered how difficult it is for a dog to love again. Or how hard it is to regain a dog's trust if, for example, we rescue them from an abusive or neglectful situation.
Clive: That's a really, really interesting and important question. I know a lot of people are afraid about adopting adult dogs.
Clive: If the dog has been in an abusive situation, they worry that the dog might have lost the ability to form trusting, loving relationships. Or if the dog comes from a home where there was a loving relationship, they worry that the dog now won't move its affections over to them because the dog will forever pine for the family that it knew before. On the one hand, dogs are capable and desire strong, loving relationships. That's something we share with them. We humans desire, need, strong, loving relationships. That's part of why we get along so well. We, and they, share this need for strong, loving relationships. But we are not dogs, and dogs are not us. There are clearly differences in the nature of the loving relationships that dogs form. One crucial difference is that dogs are more readily able to form new loving relationships, to recover from past positive and negative relationships. People don't need to be concerned about adopting an adult dog. That dog will still be ready and willing to form new strong relationships.
I talk about this in my book, Dog is Love. There's a strange study that was done in Hungary, where they have dogs held in sort of shelter situations of a kind we don't have, thank goodness, in the United States, where the dogs live, many dozens of them together, with almost no human contact. A study was done where they just let the dogs meet with one person for 10 minutes a day, for a week. That was actually enough for the dogs to, already at the end of a single week, start showing that they were seeking to form loving relationships with that person.
Dogs can form loving relationships much more easily than people can. They can also move on to new loving relationships relatively easily. I'm not saying, not for a moment, I don't want to be quoted as saying, "It's okay to wrench a dog away from a family, it'll be fine." I do think that they do adapt to new families and to new sets of relationships more easily than we human beings do.
Jan: One of the chapters in your book is called, How Dogs Fall in Love. Tell us more about that process if you're bringing a puppy home, or if you're bringing an adult dog home.
Clive: There are two parts to what makes dogs loving beings. One is that dogs possess, as I was saying, genes, mutations in genes, that make them inclined, very much more than other animals, to form strong, loving relationships. The second part is, early in life, every animal has to learn what kinds of beings it's okay to form strong relationships with. That's another thing where our dogs are rather remarkable, that this window of opportunity, which in wild animals is very short. If you want to teach a wolf to make friends with people, you have to spend a lot of time with a wolf pup in the first couple of weeks of life. It goes through that phase, that window of opportunity, to learn, "What kinds of beings is it okay for me to have strong relationships with?"
A wolf goes through that very, very quickly. The reason why a wolf goes through that very quickly, all wild animals go through that window very quickly. Out in nature, a thousand movies intended for children, none of that's true. The animals in the forest, I'm sorry, but they're not all friends. They're not all friends out there in the forest. They're killing and eating each other or they're avoiding being somebody else's dinner. Nature has set things up, evolution has set things up, so that the window of opportunity in which young animals learn the kinds of beings it's okay to make friends with is very short. That more or less guarantees that wild animals only make friends with others of their own species.
Now, in our dogs, that window of opportunity is not just a couple of weeks, it's several months. Several months early in life, when a dog learns, from looking around itself, what kinds of beings is it okay to make friends with. Because that window of opportunity is so long, dogs easily learn to make friends with people. They easily learn to make friends with goats and sheep, if you leave a puppy around goats and sheep, they will learn that it's okay to make friends with them. For a young animal, it's crucial that the young animal be given the opportunity to interact with other beings that you want it to be able to make friends with later in life. For our pet animals, we're talking about ourselves. We want our pets to make friends with us and human beings, other human beings like we are. That's crucial to an animal, that an animal have healthy, early socialization. That then sets it up to form strong relationships the rest of the way through life.
When you adopt an adult animal, that's already behind you. If you're adopting an adult animal, and that animal has lived with people earlier in its life, then in time, it will make friends with you, more or less quickly, probably pretty quickly. What you need to watch out for is that there is now a fashion among some people to adopt dogs from Third World countries, where the dogs may have been living on the streets, may have had very limited opportunity when they were puppies, to learn that it's okay to make friends with people.
If you capture a dog from, wherever in the Third World you might be inclined to, you bring it home to the United States, and you try and keep it in your house as a pet, that can be very, very challenging. You can't really know, but it's possible that that dog, when it was a puppy, didn't get to meet with people and didn't get to learn that it's okay to make friends with people. If that opportunity was missed in the first three months of life, as far as we know, nothing you do when the animal is an adult will ever be able to make good what it missed out on as a puppy.
Laura: Oh, interesting. I'm curious to know in a human and dog relationship, what are some unique ways that we can express love for our dog and make them feel like they're really cared for, besides just giving them food and water and pets?
Clive: It doesn't take very much, it really doesn't take very much. If you just let your dog express his or her love for you in the ways that you're both comfortable with, that's all it takes. If any living thing loves me, my dog loves me. What does she need? She just needs me to be around.
Clive: I think the cruelest thing that is routinely accepted in our treatment of dogs is leaving them alone for extended periods of time. In Sweden, there's a law that says, "You must not leave your dog alone for more than four hours at a time." I'm not saying we need that law in the United States. I think anybody who's thinking of opening their home to a dog, needs to think about how long, on a day, would that dog need to be alone? I'm very, very lucky. My University is 10 minutes away and I work from home a great deal of the time. My dog is seldom, seldom left alone for more than two or three hours at a stretch. Just letting her be with me, letting her rub up against me.
Right now, she's, what is she, six or seven feet away from me, sleeping on the bed she has in the back of my office. That's what she needs. I'm sure that she is content and comfortable just hearing my voice droning on like a human does and just having an awareness that I'm nearby, that I can protect her if anything comes up, not that anything does. I think in her psyche, she needs that reassurance that I'm around to take care of her. Does she like being petted? Yeah, she likes being petted. She likes being taken out for W-A-L-K, I'm sorry I have to spell it.
Laura: Of course.
Clive: These are things that she certainly enjoys. That's undoubtedly true. She likes treats and so on. At a basic level, it's enough just to keep her company. That's what she craves.
Jan: What would you recommend people do if they have to work away from home and they're gone for maybe 8 or 10 hours a day? Or they have to go away on a trip and they're going to be gone for a week or two? What kind of situations should they look for to make sure that the dog is treated ethically?
Clive: What can you do if you are in the situation? We all are, at least some of the time. Many of us, most of the time. You have to be away from home for many hours a day. One thing to keep in mind, of course is, it's not only human beings who can keep dogs company. If you have two dogs, they can keep each other company. In some families, a dog and a cat can keep each other company. I'm afraid, as I mentioned already, our cat is too shy and aloof for that to be an option for Xephos, but in many families that can work. Or you can take your dog to a good doggy daycare, Xephos loves going to daycare. You have to be a little aware and make sure that this is a decent establishment, but there are plenty of good doggy daycares. Or you can have a friend or somebody you pay to come around and take your dog for a walk and provide your dog with company during the day. Your dog doesn't know that you paid this person to come. Your dog won't be offended to be chatted to by somebody who's being paid to take care of them. Certainly, if your dog's anything like my dog, Xephos, they very quickly make friends with that person.
Laura: What's the most surprising thing that you've learned in your research?
Clive: The single most surprising thing? First of all, I'm surprised at myself. I'm surprised at what I learned about myself. In that, I always thought of myself as a relatively hard-nosed kind of a behavioral scientist. I know people are surprised at me, that I'm now the one going around with the 'L Word' and talking about love all the time. So squishy, soppy, and romantic. I should be the one that admits that surprises me. I do honestly believe that we can make love into a study of both phenomenon. It's not impossible to study affection and love.
The other part of it that so surprised me was that we have been able to track down the genes for love. Something that often seems squishy and hard to get hold of, that we can actually pin down genes, the most basic level of talking about any living thing, its genetic material, that directly connects to this capacity for love and affection. That really is what surprises me.
Jan: I guess you're not surprised when you hear stories about dogs who've been missing for quite a while or wandered away from home and come back after a week, or two weeks, or even a longer amount of time.
Clive: There are two parts to that. The part that is the dog finding its way home, that surprises me. If it's a story about a dog finding its own way home, the surprising part about that is that I don't think most of our dogs have enough of a sense of direction, enough of an understanding of geography. I am often skeptical of that part of the story.
But the part of the story that doesn't surprise me, and moves me to tears, is when the dog gets home, which I think is more commonly because somebody finds the dog and drives it home. When the dog gets home, having been lost, the emotional expression of the dogs. There are all these YouTube videos of dogs crying, crying because they have finally reunited with their person. These are such touching movies.
It doesn't have to be that the dog went away, of course. A fairly common YouTube video of this type is a man, or a woman who went away, perhaps on military service or some other situation, that the human had to go away for months, or even years. The dog has no understanding of where their human has gone, then they're reunited. It is so sweet, it is so painfully sweet. It's hard to watch some of these. It's really cute.
Laura: I find that my dog is like that if I go away for five minutes, or if I just take the trash out. It's like every single time I come back, she acts so surprised.
Jan: She's like, "Oh my god, you're home!"
Laura: It's the sweetest thing. It always brings a smile to my face.
Clive: Oh, yeah. A couple of years ago, a TV crew interviewed me at home. They wanted to film Xephos's excitement of being reunited with me. I just stepped outdoors for literally five minutes and came straight back in. She was so thrilled. It was as if she hadn't seen me for years.
Laura: Oh, my gosh, that's not surprising at all. As you know, our show is called, Nobody Told Me! We always like to ask our guests, "What's your nobody told me lesson?" What do you wish someone had told you about the bond between dogs and humans, long before your research, that maybe would have saved you some of your tough thoughts about dogs and love?
Clive: Nobody told me that I could combine something that was deeply emotionally in me, going back to my childhood, with my science. Nobody led me to expect that I could make a science out of loving dogs. It's like squaring a circle to me, that these two things that I thought of as such completely different parts of my character, my nature, they could be reconciled. This is so tremendously satisfying for me.
Jan: Clive, how can people connect with you on social media and the internet and find out more about the book?
Clive: If people can spell my name, then I'm really easy to find. My website is just my name, clivewynne.com. I'm really easy to find, so long as they can spell my name.
Laura: Our thanks to Clive Wynne, author of, Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You. Again, his website is clivewynne.com. I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.