The Psychology of Why We Love Dogs
Schopenhauer, Sartre, and the Science of Why Dogs Are Humanity’s Best Friends
We love dogs. Just about all of us do. Big dogs, small dogs, yappy dogs, fluffy dogs, all of them are loveable dogs — we call them pups and puppers, woofers and boofers, pupperinos and cutie-booties, and we adore our closest companions like no other.
If you were to ask a dog owner why they love their dogs so much, they’d probably tell you that they have a close and enduring bond with their dogs, they care about them on a deep level, and know their dogs care about them in return, offering company, love, and an undeniable loyalty.
One of the other things they’ll tell you, is that they have a relationship with dogs that they simply can’t have with human beings. This is part of what makes dogs so loveable, their differences from humans.
Their exchanges and dynamics with their dogs are different than those with their human counterparts in various ways that make dogs an indispensible creature in our modern lives (for dog-lovers, that is). But still the question remains, why do we love dogs so much?
After a brief history of the dog (to help us understand them), this story seeks to answer that question by drawing upon the thoughts of science and philosophers, in an attempt to paint a clearer picture of why dog’s are truly humankind’s best friends.
Evolving Together — Love and Survival in the History of Dogs
Contrary to popular belief, dogs didn’t actually evolve from wolves quite like we think they did, but rather, evolved along with wolves, though they are both the descendents of an ancient species now-extinct known as “Canis,” the Latin word for dog, and both dogs and wolves have been our friends, looking out for us since about the time we first evolved.
Dogs are a class of animals, along with their ancestral Canis, of the class of animals known as “Caniformia,” which is Latin for “dog-like,” and other members of this classification share the dog-like traits, including raccoons, bears, foxes, skunks, and even walruses, and a quick glance at the snout of any of these animals will tell us, not only that they’re all cute, but that they’re all related.
It has been theorized that humans evolved over thousands of years from a common ancestor of the modern-day great apes, during the Ice Age, when the Earth’s climate began to cool somewhere between 6 and 2 million years ago.
As the temperatures dropped, forests which were once dense with trees began to dwindle and transform into grasslands. It was within these trees that apes lived, the common ancestors of both the great apes and humankind, who then had to adapt to walking long distances in search of food and water, rather than hunting in the trees like many species of primates do today, becoming slowly bipedal in the process. Similar evolutionary changes happened to dogs.
Around this same time, small foxes began to grow larger in response to the changing weather and climate, so that they may better hunt in the open fields rather than the densely-wooded forests, culminating in the species known simply as “Canis” about 1 million years ago, which was a large, wolf-like and dog-like creature who would eventually evolve into what we know today.
This is extremely important information when it comes to answering the question, “Why do we love dogs so much?”
The fact that we evolved together plays a major role in our love for one another, as we actually, at some point, began to evolve in order to live together better. Evolution tailored our respective species to cohabitate perfectly.
In the beginning, dogs were allowed to pick the bones of human hunts clean after the groups of people had enjoyed their meals, and dogs likely followed humans as scavangers at first, but this wasn’t a take-only relationship, with dogs begging ancient humans for their tablescraps much like our little lovelies do today.
The dogs provided a service that they provide to us today, the service of the watchdog, keeping an eye out for larger predators, and barking to alarm humans that a threat was near that could possibly kill them all.
From here, we know for a fact that humans domesticated both dogs and grey wolves, keeping both as pets, dispelling the modern notion that wolves cannot be domesticated — they have been in the past.
The main point is that both dogs and wolves have had our well-being in mind since the beginning of human life on Earth.
Excitement and Play
Let’s not pretend that one of our favorite things about dogs isn’t how silly, goofy, and straight-up excited they get all the time, especially when we have friends over or call their names. It doesn’t matter if they’re seeing your friend for the 4,612th time and he doesn’t have any pizza, they still jump up and down on the furniture fulled with energy, they spin around and wag their tails.
They look at you, then back at your friend, then at you again, with excited eyes they communicate: “What do I do, what do I do, what do I do???? Just tell me what to do! I’m excited, why aren’t you excited??? What’s this mean? Can we be friends? Can we ALL be friends? Please, pretty please?”
The reasons dogs go so bonkers like this is because they adapted with us, and they adapted to protect us from threats, meaning that if a dog failed to notify us when anyone came by, it could have likely meant the end of all of thier lives. Dogs evolved to be our protectors, through and through, our defenders and alarm systems on the ancient fields.
When the dog looks at you and then looks at your friend, while it may look cute, in a very real way they’re saying to you, “Just give me the sign and we’ll attack, I’m with you.”
They’re waiting for the cue to mount a defense.
The Existential Psychology of Innocent Looks
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre speaks of The Look, in his chief work Being and Nothingness, where he gets around the problem of solipsism by saying that we know that other people are conscious, with minds like us, when they look at us — we feel shame, we feel worry, we feel social anxiety…
We realize our responsibility for our actions in the world and immediately know in our core, that we will be judged for who we are by other people.
The idea of “The Look” is actually extremely important to the psychology of why we love dogs, even if Sartre didn’t explicitly state it himself. We love dogs because, while they may look at us, they don’t give us the look.
We can’t deal with other people at all without judgment, yet, when it comes to dogs and them looking at us, their looks are totally devoid of moral judgment. They might be afraid, they might be excited, they might be sad or relaxed, but their stares will never be judgmental. They’ll never silently judge our work history or our sexual performance, they’ll never jump to conclusions about us that aren’t true, and they’ll never consider us responsible for them, even if they consider themselves absolutely responsible to us.
That’s how much they love us, and they evolved to love us that much, it’s completely hard-wired in our dogs to love us unconditionally, so in a very real way, our dogs cannot NOT love us with their entire being without sufficient abuse.
Every other set of eyes comes with an attachment of expected responsibility, with conditions, but dogs’ eyes are pure in both their intention and their love.
Sartre is very right here in saying, between the lines as he did, that every single look is a conversation taking place without words — there is a Language of the Eyes, a language that dogs speak much more nicely than people do.
The Pessimism of Dogs
19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was essentially the most pessimistic philosopher of all time. He contributed much to philosophy carrying on the legacy of Kant, even if they disagreed at points, and wrote his most digestible work, Essays in the Study of Pessimism, a collection of his essays which deal with the negative side of the human experience.
“[Animals are] much more content with mere existence than [humans];” Schopenhauer says in his essay On the Suffering of the World…”the plant is wholly so; and [humans find] satisfaction in it just in proportion as he is dull and obtuse,” says Schopenhauer in discussing the differences between us and our pets.
According to Schopenhauer, dogs are actually better than people, and we envy their existences…
“It is just this characteristic way in which the animal gives itself up entirely to the present moment that contributes so much to the delight we take in our domestic pets. They are the present moment personified, and in some respects they make us feel the value of every hour that is free from trouble and annoyance, which we, with our thoughts and preoccupations, mostly disregard. But man, that selfish and heartless creature, misuses this quality of the animal to be more content than we are with mere existence, and often works it to such an extent that he allows the brute absolutely nothing more than mere, bare life.”
Schopenhauer then goes on to say that he, “feels the deepest sympathy for the animal and burning indignation against their master,” something I think almost all of us have felt, no doubt, when we see an animal improperly cared for, or worse, abused.
The painful and burning rage that we often feel towards people who harm dogs especially stand strongly and firmly as a testament to the fact that, while dogs evolved perfectly to love us and protect us, we evolved imperfectly to protect and love them, sadly. So, in the end, it is a lopsided relationship.
American author Mark Twain once remarked, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.”
But this doesn’t take away from the love we feel for dogs or the value of our relationships with them — the actions of a malevolent and misguided few aren’t the norm and shouldn’t be taken as such. We love them, they love us, and that’s what really counts in life; and those of us who make our pet dogs’ lives amazing serve to make up for all of the bad apples out there who sadly can’t handle their pets.
Further, Schopenhauer’s advice rings true, that we can learn a lot from dogs and their appreciation for the present moment, and I think virtually everyone can agree with me here that we could all adopt a little bit more of their unconditional kindness and devotion, something else he praised them for.
Schopenhauer also believed that pessimism, as a philosophy, was practiced to come to grips with the harsh realities of life and the world, but only to do so that we may better enjoy it more, without deluding ourselves into living a lie.
Humankind’s Best Friend
It’s safe to say, we love dogs so much because they love us so much, as they were designed to do.
On a closing note, since I said that dogs approach everyone who comes upon us with a wagging tail and tons of energy, but with an eye out to defend us in the presence of a threat, they’re actually also truly all of our friends.
They’re the perfect companions for an imperfect species called “humans.”
The fact that dogs usually wait until an actual altercation breaks out before attacking, shows that they often have more patience and better judgment than we humans do. They understand one law, one code of honor: If you’re hurt, I will defend you, loyally and absolutely — to the death if need be, because I’m a dog and that’s what we’re designed to do — to love, to protect, to defend, to support, and to honor our human counterpart — even if they’re flawed in the way they love us back.
© 2019; Joe Duncan. All Rights Reserved