Dogs are companionable

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While meals on wheels was the dog’s first role I think that companionship was a close second one. This idea is discounted by many commentators who say it’s too modern an interpretation to put on our relationship with dogs. Companionship with another species can only develop, they say, in a resource-rich environment where there’s surplus time to invest in emotional bonds. Balderdash! The hard-wired instincts of our ancestors 500 to 600 generations back were no different to ours. Hunger, sex, aggression, territory guarding, these all existed then as they do now. So did nurturing. The instinct to nurture is in all mammals, it’s elemental to the survival of the young but what differentiates us from perhaps all others is our lifelong need to nurture. Virtually every single culture that anthropologists have ever studied keeps pets and when dogs are available they’re the preferred species.

In his book, Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour, Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian ethologist explained why we innately feel affection for animals with juvenile features, why we go soft and sloppy when we see puppies or kittens, fawns or lambs, lion or bear cubs. He said that certain baby features – a large head relative to the rest of the body, large eyes compared to the size of the head, short, thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, clumsy movements – that these juvenile features automatically trigger “innate releasing mechanisms” in us, both for feelings of affection and for nurturing. Lorenz said that when we see a living creature with babyish features, – and a young pup is just about as cartoon babyish as you get – we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response is self-evident if we’re to be successful raising our own young.

Lorenz points out that the German names of many animals with features mimicking human babies end in the diminutive suffix chen, even though the animals are often larger than close relatives without such features for example Rotkehlchen (robin), Eichhörnchen (squirrel), and Kaninchen (rabbit).

Lorenz said we don’t need all of these features to trigger a response but rather just an individual characteristic, such as large, round eyes in the middle of a round face, that acts as a “releaser”. He says that we transfer this instinctive evolutionary reaction to our own babies to other animals with similar features, – large eyes, a bulging forehead and a retreating chin while we instinctively reject animals with beady small eyes and long snouts – animals such as rats.

Stephen Jay Gould, in an article titled A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, published in the journal Natural History, says that our emotional response to Walt Disney’s cartoon characters also rests on the same pre-set reactions. Disney’s villains, regardless of their age have adult appearances while those we are meant to worry about and to care for are, regardless of their chronological age, juvenile in their looks. Think of Mickey Mouse, Dumbo or the Seven Dwarfs.

Most animals display flexibility and play in childhood but follow rigidly programmed patterns as adults. Wolves don’t. Dogs don’t. We don’t either. That’s our little trade secret, the reason why we’re always curious about life, about what’s around the next corner. That’s why we play games, hike, explore, experiment. We’re a naturally ‘neotenised’ species. We retain throughout life both physical and mental characteristics of youth. Just like us, in an evolutionary context, the wolf is also a naturally ‘neotenised’ species but our intervention in the breeding of its descendent, the dog has made it even more so. Dogs are like Peter Pan, caught in everlasting childhood, something to care for and to be amused by. Just like us dogs never grow up but alas, like us they do grow old.

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