Dear Dr. Fox: People talk about the â€śunconditional loveâ€ť their dogs give them. I think this is how parents should love their children. Maybe how dogs love is better than what most people are able to give. What are your thoughts about this? K.L.S., Arlington, Va.
Dear K.L.S.: Your question is really quite profound. My love of animals is based upon what they have taught and given me in countless ways since early childhood, including a career dedicated to their well-being and recognition of their rights.
In my opinion, â€śunconditional loveâ€ť is a simplistic figment of sentiment. Before any dog or other creature will accept our affection, she/he must first trust us. Hence, the vital importance of proper puppy socialization.
Greeting, grooming and playing are affection-affirming behaviors that humans interpret as expressing love. But it is self-evident that such mutual enjoyment is an emotional, empathic engagement of two or more consciousnesses: a communion of bodies, minds and spirits. Affectionate and caregiving interactions, in particular, cause reciprocal elevations in the love/bonding hormone oxytocin and other pleasure-center and immune system-benefiting neurochemicals in puppies and people alike.
Those people who seek to be loved seem to especially enjoy smaller dog breeds with the genetics of perpetual puppies, constantly displaying caregiving (licking) and care-seeking (yapping) behaviors. Overindulgence and not shaping the pupâ€™s behavior to complement a healthy human-animal bond â€” and reinforcing the wrong behaviors and solicitations, in particular â€” contribute to the obesity epidemic and other health and behavioral problems in dogs today. Separation anxiety in attachment-seeking breeds and individuals is a sad reality for hundreds of thousands of left-alone-all-day, but â€śloved,â€ť dogs around the industrial world.
The twisted, often obsessive love of control can lead to the acceptance and practice of cruel training methods. The misplaced love of people who buy â€śexotic petsâ€ť (species who neither belong nor thrive in captivity), and of cat owners who let their cats roam free because they believe it is wrong to deprive them of their natural instincts, raise serious ethical and animal welfare concerns.