Can dogs love? Can a dog named Lance love? A dog can’t say “I love you” but isn’t love more about deeds than words? Recently, I presented the results of some scientific testing that indicates dogs are capable of loving. My experience boarding Lance is anecdotal—but perhaps more compelling—proof that dogs can love.
Back story: Lance was a ten-year-old border collie (semi-feral as it turned out) when I rescued him. He turned out to be a fear biter, even of his rescuers.
Four months after rescuing Lance, we had to drive to Maryland (a five or six hour ride) for my stepson’s wedding. We couldn’t take Lance with us due to his hyperactivity inside a car. Plus, what would we do with him when we got to Maryland? Because of Lance’s behavior, we also couldn’t hire a dog sitter. We decided to contact the local boarding kennel. On the phone, I outlined in detail the issues that we had with Lance. The person on the other end of the phone said, “Oh, we’re good with the hard-to-handle dogs. Not to worry.”
I had my doubts but a few days later we dropped Lance off at that kennel. An employee took Lance by the leash and led him back to his cage without incident. He would be housed in a decently sized caged area and the facility appeared clean and well run. Writing this today, I can’t believe we did this but again, before leaving, an employee of the kennel assured me they had great success boarding dogs of all kinds and temperaments.
Off we went to Maryland on a Friday morning. The following Monday, on our way back home we stopped by the kennel to pick Lance up. An employee greeted me with an anxious and relieved, “I’m so glad you came back! We didn’t know what to do.” She then told me that, since his arrival the previous Friday, Lance had refused to eat food or drink water. He had not left his cage the entire time and would not let anyone enter it. While in Maryland, neither Clara nor I had thought to call the kennel, assuming that all was well. The kennel only had our home phone number and had left numerous unanswered messages. I didn’t have a cell phone back then and I’m not sure whether Clara did either.
I went back to his cage to retrieve Lance. If I had to describe his appearance with one word it would be—haggard. He had been defecating and urinating inside his cage. If I had to describe my feelings at the time with three words they would be—relieved and guilty.
Had my wife and I spent a few more days in Maryland, I’m convinced Lance, refusing all help, would have starved himself to death. So, was it just about food and shelter for Lance? He had both of those but was missing something else far more valuable to him—his rescuers.
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I meant to post this long ago but it got lost in my disorganization. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a story worth re-visiting:
Meet Eclipse. Every day she leaves her house by herself, and takes the bus downtown to the dog park where she spends a couple of hours getting exercise and making friends, and then she takes the bus back home again. She even has a bus pass attached to her collar.
It started when her owner, Jeff Young, was taking too long when the bus arrived. Eclipse impatiently ran ahead and got on the bus by herself. The bus driver recognized her and dropped her off at the dog park, and later Jeff caught up with her. After several more trips by herself, Jeff started letting her go on her own, and she always comes back home a couple of hours later.
All of the bus drivers know her and she makes them smile, and many of the regular passengers enjoy seeing her every day and will often sit down next to her. Even the police have given their approval as long as the bus drivers are okay with the arrangement. Why wouldn’t they be? She makes everybody happy!
Click HERE to watch Eclipse in action
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Because of my experience rescuing Lance and writing a book about him, I put together a PowerPoint presentation entitled In Defense of Dogs. I give this presentation wherever I can—libraries, schools, senior centers, YMCAs, etc. I’ve (hopefully) made it part humorous, part educational. In one section of the presentation, I refer to the Jon Katz newspaper interview I recently posted on Lance’s blog. I then go to the following brief description of some scientific testing that has been conducted on dogs:
“In 2013-2014, animal cognition scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and also scientists in Hungary all conducted studies on dogs utilizing MRI machines. They used positive reinforcement to train the dogs to remain motionless, no mean feat in itself. The studies focused on an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus where emotions can be measured in both dogs and humans. The results? Hand signals indicating food, smells of familiar people and other dogs, the return of a familiar human and hearing the voice of a familiar person (not just someone who fed the dog) all triggered activity in the dogs’ caudate nucleus. Any hints of their owners took priority over everyone and everything else's smell.
Further objective findings: other domestic animals tend to run when scared/ worried, dogs typically seek out their owner. Dogs are the only non-primate animal to seek eye contact from humans and, like humans and other primates, dogs can distinguish faces. Women's brain activity increases in areas such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction when they looked at photos of their own children and pet dogs versus looking at photos of unknown children and dogs. When shown photos of familiar and strange faces, dogs also prefer faces they know. I couldn’t find any similar studies involving men.
Humans and dogs boost each other's level of oxytocin—the "love hormone" responsible for feelings of affection—with eye to eye contact. It's been said that dogs “hug” with their eyes.”
Here’s a link to an updated report on these test results:
It’s worth looking at just for the photo alone!
In fairness to Mr. Katz, his interview with the Chicago Tribune was conducted a few years before any of these studies had been done.
When writing Lance: A Spirit Unbroken, I did my best to make it clear that I was not in any way, shape or form a dog expert. I have neither training nor college education in any field relating to animals in general or dogs in particular. I do make the claim of being an expert at handling one particular semi-feral border collie named Lance. That skill—and my lack of any professional expertise in things canine—are both on display in Lance: A Spirit Unbroken. In next month’s blog I will offer anecdotal—not scientific—evidence that a dog, even an ornery one like Lance, can indeed love.
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Here are some of the reader responses the newspaper received in reaction to the Jon Katz interview. One of them was apparently written by a dog, no less!
I have dog sat several times for people. I live in their house for a week or two.
I take care of the dogs. I feed them, give them water, walk them & definitely play with them. And guess what? When the owner comes home, those dogs go absolutely nuts!
They missed their owners. They may like me, but they completely love the people they really live with! –okgo
Until dogs can talk, the author's opinion can never be more than a theory.–Seamus
There was a time when I would have agreed with you but I believe you are completely wrong. My parents went away for almost a year while my father had a lung transplant. They left their little poodle "Lady" with friends. Lady did just fine with the new keepers until the day my parents came back home. When they walked into the room Lady almost fainted and then began to bark and squeal and dance and dance and so on. She was so happy to see my mom and dad that we began to fear she was going to have a heart attack and tried to calm her down.
This went on so long that it was more than seeing a past food server but genuinely missed my parents. I will never forget that experience.–HLW
Hellooo? His name is Katz. The arch-nemesis of canines.
Jeesh. I don't buy it.
Now go cough up that fur ball.–Dr. J
My husband & I recently visited friends we hadn't seen in 4 years. Their little Yorkie went wild over me and ignored my husband--I had cared for her a lot when she was younger and injured and when her "parents" vacationed, my husband was always there but not involved with Zoe. It was pretty amazing and her mom human told me that Zoe only acted that way for a very few favorite people. 4 years! What a memory.--Sean
As a golden retriever, I take great umbrage with this column (yes, goldens are smart enough to read and type). I am almost 14 years old, and have lived all over the country with my person/master/whatever you want to call him. He hasn't left me that often, but the few times he has, I most certainly missed him. and I most definitely love him. I've gotten sick before, and he's made me better. I needed both knees reconstructed so I wouldn't be in pain, and he took a second job so that we could get the surgery. I'm living with cancer now, and he's taking me to chemotherapy...and it's going into remission. Everything he gives to me, I try to give back 10-fold, and it's not just because he's got the food. Take it from me, dogs form attachments, and dogs love.--Julie
What about the dogs that manage to find their way back to their family after weeks, months, even years of separation (sometimes on their own, even!)? These dogs bypass new homes that could feed them and give them attention, focused on finding their proper "pack." What about the dogs that refuse to leave their master's grave/house/whatever despite other people offering food? It may not be love as we typically define it, but I would at least call that attachment.--Ella
Dangerous article to write in a city known for being dog lovers. I'd jump in the lake to save my dog every day and twice on Sunday.–Leonid Radzvilar
This is from Katz’s own website and describes his dog: "While Katz is trying to help his dog, Orson is helping him, shepherding him toward a new life on a two-hundred-year-old hillside farm in upstate New York. There, aided by good neighbors and a tolerant wife, hip-deep in sheep, chickens, donkeys, and more dogs, the man and his canine companion explore meadows, woods, and even stars, wade through snow, bask by a roaring wood stove, and struggle to keep faith with each other. There, with deep love, each embraces his unfolding destiny. "So, which is it, Mr. Katz?–Dan
P.S. Approximately 90% of the respondents insisted dogs can indeed love. Apparently, they felt Mr. Katz was “barking up the wrong tree” (I just had to write that!)
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As promised here’s an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 2009:
Note to Jess Craigie: Your dog still doesn't love you. Yes, you jumped into the 40-degree waters of Lake Michigan Tuesday to save her. Paramedics said you were less than five minutes from death when they plucked you and Moxie, your 2-year-old mutt, to safety.
It was a foolhardy risk. But, honestly, I'd have done the same thing if I thought my dog was going to drown. And my dog doesn't love me, either. I tell myself she does—that she offers me not just affection, but that rare gift of unconditional love. But in fact, said author Jon Katz, who has written extensively on the bond between humans and dogs, what she, Moxie and other pets offer is neither unconditional nor love.
"Dogs develop very strong, instinctive attachments to the people who feed and care for them," said Katz, speaking Wednesday from his farm in upstate New York. "Over 15,000 years of domestication, they've learned to trick us into thinking that they love us."
What about the nuzzling? The big, adoring eyes? The wagging glee with which they greet us? They're all part of what Katz refers to as the "opportunistic, manipulative behavior" that's second nature to dogs. Not to say that they're canine con artists. "It's just how their instincts have evolved," Katz said. “Dogs aren't deceptive any more than they're sentimental, loyal, nostalgic, witty or bitter.”
"They don't have a narrative mind or the language to have those sorts of human qualities," said Katz. Imagining otherwise is part of what he calls the "Disney Dog" idea so many of us buy into. Their attachment is, in fact, "extremely conditional," Katz said. "They'll respond to anyone who gives them food and attention. I have a wonderful Labrador retriever who's very happy here. But if you had hamburger meat on you, she'd gladly go to Chicago with you and never look back."
I'd been thinking about this subject all week, even before Craigie took the plunge for Moxie. Since Friday, we've been taking care of Scout, the beloved mongrel of my vacationing Tribune colleagues Barbara Brotman and Chuck Berman. And she's shown no sign of pining for them—no loss of appetite or energy, no unsociable behavior.
"Dogs don't 'miss' you when you go away," said Katz, whose conclusions are supported by university studies of animal behavior. "They might get anxious and confused, but don't mistake that for loneliness or mourning. As soon as they find someone else to take care of them, they forget you pretty quickly." He added, "I don't mean to imply that dogs aren't great. I love my dogs. But I don't need to pretend that they're like people. That doesn't do them any good. Dogs are happiest when you treat and train them as dogs, not children." I'll remind Barbara and Chuck of that should they ask for the return of their faithless mutt.
But meanwhile, Jon Katz, moment of truth: Despite your unrequited love, would you leap into an icy Lake Michigan after one of your dogs?
"It's hard to say," he allowed. "I'd like to think I wouldn't; that I'd realize that human life is far more valuable. But watching my dog drown would be very tough."
Border collies are known for their teamwork when herding.
How about this teamwork when "getting hosed"?
Video Source: https://www.cyclerides.com
Early in the process of writing Lance: A Spirit Unbroken, I joined a critiquing group. It was the single best thing I did to improve my writing. Subjecting my work to others’ criticism wasn’t easy for me, but better to learn from fellow writers before publishing, than learn the hard way from readers after publishing. In those early critiquing sessions, I was told to do two things: get rid of the big words and write less formally. The former was relatively easy to accomplish; the latter required a leap of faith on my part but I'm confident the book became a lot more conversational by the time it got published.
Along the way, one of my fellow critiquers suggested that I make Lance a talking dog. Other members of the group rolled their eyes, but he was dead serious. I thought about his suggestion, but not for too long. To do such a thing would have changed the trajectory and the mood of Lance’s story and, in my mind, diminished the serious purpose I had for writing the book. That purpose was to raise awareness re: animal maltreatment and, hopefully, inspire the reader to take action.
Though Lance and I did not have oral conversations (except for the occasional bite!), I feel there were times when he and I communicated mentally, beyond his obeying a command or understanding words like “treat” or “hike.” For example, not once, but twice, he escaped from his abusive owners’ property and showed up on my doorstep. Wasn’t that a silent cry for help?
In the book, Lance occasionally "talks" to me, not in quotes but in italics. I’ve wondered at times if a reader might find my communication with Lance a stretch, but so far no one has commented to that effect.
How about you? Do you have “conversations” with your dog? What has your dog “told” you and vice versa?
GOLDEN RETRIEVER: The sun is shining, the day is young, we've got our whole lives ahead of us, and you're inside worrying about a stupid burned-out bulb?
BORDER COLLIE: Just one. And then I'll replace any wiring that's not up to code.
DACHSUND: You know I can't reach that stupid lamp!
ROTTWEILER: Make me.
LAB: Oh, me, me!!!! Puleeeeeeze let me change the light bulb! Can I? Can I? Huh? Huh? Huh? Can I?
TIBETAN TERRIER: Let the Border Collie do it. You can feed me while he's busy!
JACK RUSSELL TERRIER: I'll just pop it in while I'm bouncing off the walls and furniture.
POODLE: I'll just blow in the Border Collie's ear and he'll do it. By the time he finishes rewiring the house, my nails will be dry.
GERMAN SHEPHERD: I'll change it as soon as I've led these people from the dark, checked to make sure I haven't missed any, and make just one more perimeter patrol to see that no one has tried to take advantage of the situation.
COCKER SPANIEL: Why change it? I can still pee on the carpet in the dark.
DOBERMAN: While it's dark, I'm going to sleep on the couch.
BOXER: Who cares? I can still play with my squeaky toys in the dark.
CHIHUAHUA: Yo quiero Taco Bulb.
IRISH WOLFHOUND: Can somebody else do it? I've got this hangover.
POINTER: I see it, there it is, there it is, right there!
GREYHOUND: It isn't moving. Who cares?
YORKSHIRE TERRIER: I'm over qualified, have the boxer do it!
AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD: First, I'll put all the light bulbs in a little circle..
OLD ENGLISH SHEEP DOG: Light bulb? I'm sorry, but I don't see a light bulb?
HOUND DOG: ZZZZZZzzzzz.z.z.z..z..z..z…z
SCHNAUZER: Bark! Bark! Bark! Mom, the lightbulb is out…Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!…MOM! I said the lightbulb is out! Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!…MOM!!! WHAT PART OF THAT DIDN'T YOU HEAR? I MEAN HELLO????
SHIH TZU: Who me change a light bulb? We are royal descendants and we have staff to do that for us.
And what about cats?
CATS: Dogs do not change light bulbs. People change light bulbs. So, the question is: How long will it be before I can expect light?
ALL OF WHICH PROVES, ONCE AGAIN, THAT WHILE DOGS HAVE MASTERS, CATS HAVE STAFF…
Happiness is a wagging tail!
I'm not sure I could remember the exact order of these challenges while I was unsuccessfully trying to handle them!
Walter Stoffel is a substance abuse counselor and GED teacher in correctional facilities. When not behind bars, he likes to read, travel, work out and watch bad movies. Major accomplishment : He entered a 26.2-mile marathon following hip replacement surgery and finished—dead last. The author currently lives with his wife Clara, their dog Buddy (another rescue), and cat Winky (yet another rescue).