Myth 43: My dog can’t feel love for me the way humans do.
‘He doesn’t love you’, says the trainer and the shelter personnel with a smug smile, ‘it’s just that you give him dinner every day.’ They think they are being scientific by saying this. What they don’t know is that they are greatly overestimating what human love is.
You see, dogs don’t just love any old body anymore than we do. Our love grows as we spend time with someone and find that this is a pleasant experience. This person fulfils all kinds of needs and longings we have, much better than anyone else does. S/he listens better and understands us better than anyone else. S/he brings us small presents, gives us the feeling that our company is wonderful, is a great lover, is there for us when we have a problem, and so on. Just seeing our beloved awakens a feeling of happiness in us, because of all the pleasant and joyful things his or her presence means. The other becomes our ‘home’ because we feel so safe with him or her. In the end, we call this love.
As you can see from the previous paragraph, human love is, in essence, and with all the Hollywood trappings taken off for a sec, nothing more than a conditioned reaction to a conditioned reinforcer, a result of associating him or her with the many primary reinforcers we’ve received in his/her presence. Or to say it ordinary language, our own love is a learned reaction to something (our beloved) that we now experience as a signal that many of our needs are about to be met.
Novels, Hollywood and the advertising industry have adorned our ‘love’ with all kinds of romantic fantasies. We fell for it. Most of us believe that human ‘love’ strikes suddenly, and that it is magical, uplifting and eternal, selfless, unselfish, and without any expectation of personal gain. But this is just a belief. The statistics show a different picture. Most of the time, we love the other as long as s/he brings the wage packet home, cooks for us, gives us sexual satisfaction, and as long as s/he doesn’t nag too much or ask too much of us. The statistics show that we often (secretly) cheat, that others of us have a pattern of being serially and only shortly ‘in love’ and monogamous, and that yet others walk out the door the instant something younger or prettier or richer comes along. When we do stay together, it’s often hard work. The heavenly image of our love isn’t truly justified, because it turns out that we don’t really behave all that differently from a dog.
Which brings us back to the dog. You understand his needs with a glance. Wonderful things happen for him whenever you’re around, making his life interesting and fun. He feels safe and sheltered as long as you’re at his side. He enjoys your company. When he sees you he is filled with real joy and happiness, he misses you when you’re gone, and he is willing to give up other things to stay with you. He is much more willing than your human partner to make compromises with you and to try and meet your wishes. He doesn’t get bored with you because someone else pets him better. He immediately forgives every mistake the instant you stop making it. If he is re-homed, and he seems happy in his new place, this isn’t because he’s forgotten you. He does miss you at first, terribly — but he resigns himself to his fate because we give him no other choice. If he runs into you a couple years down the road, he’ll jump for joy at the very sight of you, without feeling the least bit of resentment because you left him.
Fact: If you ask me, this is love. Don’t let anyone take this away from you just because they think they’re being ‘scientific.’
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