What is it about dogs, exactly, that makes them so precious to us?

By Frank T. McAndrew, Ph.D.
Article reprinted from Psychology Today
January 29, 2017

Recently, my wife and I went through one of the more excruciatingly sorrowful experiences of our long married life – the euthanasia of our beloved dog, Murphy. Losing a dog is hard enough; setting the time and date in advance and then counting down the hours that we had left with her was almost more than we could bear. I still get choked up when I remember making eye contact with Murphy moments before she took her last breath – she flashed me a look that was an endearing blend of confusion mixed with the reassurance that all was well because we were both by her side.

When people who have never had a dog see their dog owning friends mourn the loss of a pet, they probably think it is all a bit of an overreaction – after all, it is “just a dog.” Fortunately, they are usually too polite to say this out loud. However, those of us who have loved a dog know the truth: Your own pet is never just a dog.

Rudyard Kipling captured this sentiment in a stanza from his poem “The Power of the Dog”:

When the fourteen years which Nature permits are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits, and the vet’s unspoken prescription runs to lethal chambers or loaded guns, then you will find – it’s your own affair – but … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

Many times in the past I have had friends guiltily confide to me that they grieved more desperately over the loss of a dog than over the loss of friends or relatives, and research has confirmed that for most people the loss of a dog is in almost every way comparable to the loss of a human loved one. Unfortunately, we do not have the corresponding cultural grief rituals to help us get through the loss of a pet, which can make us feel more than a bit embarrassed to show too much public grief over our dead dogs.

Why Dogs are Special

For starters, dogs have had to adapt to living with humans over the past 10,000 years, and they have done it very well – they are the only animal to have evolved specifically to be our companions and friends. Anthropologist Brian Hare has developed the “Domestication Hypothesis” to explain how dogs morphed from their grey wolf ancestors into the socially skilled animals that we now interact with in very much the same way that we relate to other people.

In fact, our relationships with dogs can be even more satisfying than our human relationships, if for no other reason than dogs provide us with such unconditional, uncritical positive feedback.

As the old saying goes, “May I become the kind of person that my dog thinks I already am.”

Interacting with dogs makes us feel good, and just looking at them can make us smile. Dog owners score higher on measures of well-being and they are happier on average than people who own cats and those who own no pets at all.

And dogs seem to feel the same way about us.

They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to us, and MRI scans show that dog brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food – for some dogs, praise is an even more effective incentive than food. Dogs recognize people from their faces and can learn to infer human emotional states from facial expression alone. Scientific studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, that they try to be helpful to us, and that they will even avoid people who do not cooperate with us or treat us well.

Dogs communicate with us as no other animal does. They are skilled at comprehending spoken words and using their own vocalizations to communicate with us in return.

Our strong attachment to dogs was subtly revealed in a recent study of “misnaming.” Misnaming is what happens when you call someone by the wrong name, as when parents mistakenly call one of their kids by a sibling’s name. It turns out that the name of the family dog frequently gets confused in the same mix as other human family members, indicating that the dog’s name is being pulled out of the same cognitive pool in which the names of other family members are swimming around. Curiously, the same thing rarely happens with cat names.

It is no wonder that we miss them so much when they are gone.

Why Grief over the Death of a Dog is so Intense

Psychologist Julie Axelrod has pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because we are not losing just one thing; we experience multiple losses at the same time. We may be losing our primary companion, a source of unconditional love, a “life witness” who provides security and comfort to us, and maybe even a protege whom we mentor like a child. The loss of a dog will also seriously disrupt your daily routine more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives, and changes in lifestyle and routine are one of the primary building blocks of stress. A recent survey of bereaved pet owners documented the common experience of misperceiving ambiguous sights and sounds as the deceased pet. This occurs most frequently shortly after the death of the pet, especially among individuals who had very high levels of attachment to their pets.

I miss my dog more than I can say, and yet, I am sure that I will put myself through this ordeal again in the years to come. Allow me to finish with another stanza from Kipling’s poem:
When the body that lived at your single will,
With it’s whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone – wherever it goes – for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.