Best friends: why is the love we have for our dogs so special?

At the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown we were confronted with a painful decision. Our West Highland terrier, Ziggy, who had travelled the world with us, was rapidly declining.

She’d beaten the odds three times following the discovery of a mass on her bladder which was finally confirmed as cancer. But in the space of a few months she’d gone from accompanying us on 10km runs to struggling to walk, unable to pee and poo easily, her quality of life rapidly declining.

We’d decided we wanted to be with her when she was euthanised – the kindest thing to do, our vet told us – but by that time in March that service was in short supply.

The best option we could find was for the procedure to be performed in a quiet part of a vet’s car park in Epping Forest. It felt grim to contemplate. But in the end it was painfully moving, her last moments spent curled up between us as we sat on the ground, her chin resting in my lap.It is perhaps why, last week, the television gardener Monty Don ’s response to the triggered a jolt of recognition. “What he had,” said Don, “was this absolute sense of purity. He exuded an unsullied innocence. We all love our dogs but I’ve had lots of dogs and he was special; it’s very hard to put your finger on it.”

Amid the sadness, these days there is also a feeling of guilt. A sense somehow that – real as it is – it is wrong to be feeling grief for a dog at a time when so many others are losing friends and family.

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Monty Don with his dogs Nigel and Nell.Monty Don with his dogs Nigel and Nell. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The GuardianThe dog thing came late for me. I just about remember our childhood English bull terrier, Fanny, a stage dog my father adopted while he was working in the theatre after she was fired for biting members of the cast of Oliver!Ziggy, though, arrived in my late 40s, and became a firm fixture in our lives, accompanying us everywhere, including on a four-year stint as the Guardian and Observer’s correspondent in Jerusalem.

Now, he was gone. And suddenly we were without a dog.

Scientists and psychologists are still edging towards understanding the strange and millennia-old relationship between dogs and humans. On the animals’ side of things, the picture is reasonably clear: the grey wolf, from which all breeds of domesticated dogs descended, already had a highly evolved, sophisticated and social brain. And, as dogs became domesticated, that brain appears to have acquired a sensitivity towards the human gaze and body language that allowed for training.

But, beyond the developing utilitarian function of dogs, the human draw to make canines their pets has prompted competing explanations.

As Marta Borgi and Francesca Cirulli of the department of behavioural neuroscience at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome suggested in a paper in Frontiers in Psychology: “Why animals constitute such an attractive stimulus for humans has not been completely clarified.

“Living beings engage the attention of people more than objects do, and it has been hypothesised that the evolutionary reason behind this response is that paying attention to other living beings is significant for individual fitness.”

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Other theories have been posited. One suggests that we feel a greater attraction to species that are closer to us on the genetic family tree or that are similar in behavioural or cognitive ways.

Then there is the long-established notion of Kindchenschema or “baby schema”, which suggests humans are attracted specifically to animals that display “cute” or infantile features with a large head and obvious eyes, although recent MRI studies of brain activation patterns in women viewing facial images of their own child and own dog suggested different responses.
And while many of those specialising in the field have sought to avoid the use of the word “friendship” in response to animal-human relationships, Borgi and Cirulli embrace it.

“In our opinion ‘friendship’ appears to be the most suitable word to describe close human-pet relationships, which imply the formation of a social bond that serves analogous emotional and adaptive functions as human-human friendships,” they write.

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“Most of the properties that a relationship should have in order to be characterised as friendship are traceable in the human-pet association: intimacy, companionship, trust, loyalty, commitment, affection, acceptance, sympathy, concern for the other’s welfare, as well as time spent together and maintenance of the pair bond after long separations.”

Perhaps, as the Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver wrote in Dog Talk, the end piece essay for the collection Dog Songs, some of the attachment relates to the way in which canines occupy a middle space between the wild and the tame worlds, interpreting that other place for us.

“Some things are unchangeably wild, others stolidly tame … There are wild things that have been altered, but only into a semblance of tameness, it is no real change. But the dog lives in both worlds.”

But it is Don’s comment about “unsullied innocence” that resonates the most with me. After Ziggy’s death a friend suggested that what we see in our dogs are “hairy little saints”. And in a time of such uncertainty, our social bonds disrupted, it is perhaps this that people are seeking.Last week a new dog arrived in our lives. Mindful of the “hairy saint” description we’ve called him Bodhi, meaning “awakened,” although into what dog world we’ll never know. It is always an emotional contract, entered into, as Oliver puts it, in the knowledge of our dogs’ brief time on earth.

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“It is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon … We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”