‘Would you give £5 to save Harrison from a slow, painful death?’
This was an advert placed by a medical research charity. But there were 2 versions.
One of the adverts showed Harrison to be a human, the other showed him to be dog.
Guess which advert got the better response?
It made me think of this National Lampoon cover from 1973:
What a fabulous dog! But, even though this is obviously a joke, the photo is really powerful and it does elicit an emotional response.
The above mentioned research, done by Harrison’s Fund, reveals that people are more distressed about reports of pain inflicted on dogs than they are about the same reports about adult human beings. There is however an equal response for puppies, adult dogs and human babies.
I have often suspected that in many cases people care more about their dogs than about their fellow human beings, including (quite often) their spouse.
And it’s far from rare to hear someone say that they love their dog more than anyone else, including (quite often) their spouse…
We have invited dogs into our homes, and subsequently into our families. And perhaps, in many cases, many of us feel genuine love for our dogs.
(Some people even claim to love their cats, but that’s based on the mistake that a voluntary submission to the demands our arrogant feline friends constitutes love.)
It raises the question whether or not our love is reciprocated.
Do our dogs love us?
I don’t think so.
Love is very complicated. Dogs, generally, are not.
How complicated is love?
Well, I think we’ve all attended that amazing wedding where the bride and groom, deeply in love, swear eternal love for one another. Then 5 or 10 years down the line they’re in court fighting a bitter battle, and they cannot stand the sight of each other. Love is complicated, and it can change to hate. Sometimes we get cross with our dogs, irritated, but we don’t get to hate them. And they never, ever hate us. Their relationship with us is uncomplicated. Which is why I would hesitate to call it love.
The research I mentioned above reaches 2 conclusions.
One I have alluded to, namely that we see dogs (and cats, and other pets) as part of the family.
The second conclusion is that the empathy we show towards our dogs has to do with their helplessness. Which is why we respond that way to babies too.
I don’t entirely agree with that – after all, as we keep reminding everyone we know, dogs have teeth. Lots of teeth. Not entirely helpless then. But they don’t understand why someone would point a gun to their head. In most cases they don’t know what a gun can do. And they aren’t scared to die, because they don’t know that they’re going to die. It’s a state blessed ignorance. It is innocence.
Which I believe to be the crux of the matter. Like babies, dogs are innocent. And we protect the innocent, it’s a completely natural reaction. And there’s an innocence to dogs when they play, run, go crazy and even when they stubbornly refuse to do what you want them to do. You want to be cross, but then they look at you, wag their tail, and all is forgiven.
I love our dogs, I really do. And our dogs are good, they are pretty faithful (unless someone else offers them a treat), and they are probably devoted to us. It all adds up to an incredible relationship, even if my love is not properly understood, and hence not reciprocated.
This article uses some information from ‘Dogs take the lead when it comes to winning human empathy’, printed in the Times on 1 November 2017.