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Thor nibbled on his owner’s ear. The pit bull worked hard to awaken Kemper Hunter and his girlfriend, Sarah Laughlin. Instantly, they understood Thor’s urgency. They desperately attempted to fight the smoke to get to Shelby, their 3-month-old baby, but couldn’t. The fire department arrived to find the panicked couple screaming outside their home, assuming they had lost their baby and their dog in the still-blazing fire.
Just then, they all witnessed Thor pulling the bassinet out the door to safety. Baby and dog were OK.
Last summer, Hunter, who lives in Bristol, Ind., told me, “I’m convinced if it wasn’t for my dog, we would all be dead.” The firefighters agreed.
At one time, scientists believed that dogs responded this way to save themselves, and in the process, they sometimes happened to save human lives. But in this and many other stories like it, the dog clearly risked his life. It appears as if Thor made a conscious decision to seek out and save the baby. How can this behavior be explained?
Certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell has a pretty simple explanation. “It’s love,” she says.
Animal behavior experts once maintained that such self-sacrificing decisions are impossible for animals to make, and any suggestion they could was nothing more than anthropomorphizing — ascribing human emotions and thoughts to animals. To believe our pets react, and are motivated to risk their own lives based on love, was considered absurd and without any scientific basis in fact.
“As scientists, we’re taught to look for an explanation,” McConnell says. “Dogs form similar social attachments (as people do), and I believe it is quite simple: A dog does totally love us,” McConnell says. “People will place their own lives in jeopardy for those we love, and so will dogs.”
But are dogs truly capable of love? “We selected (over thousands of years) for a close bonding relationship with dogs,” veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall says. “And as a result, today the neurochemistry in dogs’ brains is nearly identical to ours.”
It turns out people and dogs both have corresponding rising oxytocin when they’re having a good time with one another.
Do dogs make a conscious decision to play Lassie in real life? Animal cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz has a special interest in anthropomorphism. She says canine valiant behavior may be explained in terms other than thoughtful conscious choices, such as a dog acting out anxiety (the dog smells smoke and is overwhelmed physically by its affects) or exhibiting attention-seeking behavior. Dogs are creatures of habit, she says, and also extremely observant. Being social, dogs tend to “tell us” whenever there’s a change in the environment. It’s another thing to believe that dogs are actually intent on knowingly saving our lives; not that they wouldn’t, but Horowitz wonders whether they really have the capacity to think about it in those terms.
Overall is on a task force studying military working dogs. She says that when dogs fail and soldiers die, the dogs behave differently. “They seem acutely aware of human deaths,” she says. “Without question, they act depressed.”
Some cats, dogs and even parrots seem to mourn after the death of a family member. But are they mourning or responding to change?
Horowitz says that in some ways her dog probably understands her better than her husband does. “When I walk in the door, the dog doesn’t think, ‘Wow, she’s had a crummy day.’ But the dog knows instantly if something is wrong,” Horowitz says. “Dogs are such keen observers of cues which we are unaware we are even sending. It’s not what we say, it’s how we act. And probably how we smell.”
But do our dogs all unconditionally love us? “The truth is, probably not,” McConnell says with a laugh. “We have selected for dogs to be incredibly adaptable. There are so many examples of what they put up with. I’m not necessarily talking about abuse, but people who confound and confuse their dogs just because we are people. Yet, those dogs still hang in there. They still love us and might give their life for us. But do some dogs have a stronger bond with their people than others? Of course.”
Dogs are called our best friends for a reason. Call it love or call it social bonding, but whatever you call it, it’s impressive. And it works both ways. We still have a lot to learn about what dogs really think, but it’s likely that dogs understand us better than we understand them.