Is Emotional Attachment to Dogs a Modern Development?

Source: Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

I was at a university sponsored conference where we had paused for a coffee break between scientific paper sessions. In response to a casual question that I had been asked by one of my colleagues I was describing some recent survey data which showed just how strong our emotional bond to dogs has become, at least here in North America. This survey found that 94 percent of dog owners consider their dog to be part of their family. In addition 79 percent of dog people said that they included their dog in family moments, things like featuring their dog’s name or picture on holiday greeting cards or taking their dog with them on family vacations. One interesting fact was that 29 percent of dog owners post more pictures of their dog on social media sites than they do of friends, family, or themselves.

My description of the survey results was interrupted by a loud “Harumph!” It came from another faculty member who I know is a biological researcher. He waved his hand in a dismissive way and announced, “This kind of data just provides evidence of the modern, New Age, sentimentality that affects our interactions with dogs. The relationship between humans and dogs started out as a straight pragmatic thing. Dogs were valued because they could be useful as aids in hunting, herding, and guarding. That’s the only reason that we domesticated them in the first place. They were simply biological tools. I’m sure that if you were alive during the Stone Age you wouldn’t find any of our primitive human ancestors sitting around the fire while fondling a dog and whispering sweet nothings into its ear. Humans of that era certainly wouldn’t waste precious time or resorces if the dog was sick or injured. It would be considered to be a broken tool to be thrown away and replaced by a better one.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard variations on this argument. The major claim is that our emotional bond to dogs is evidence of modern sentimentality and mental mushiness. Accordingly we are told that caring about dogs is a modern invention and evidence of our contemporary weak overemotional minds. It demonstrates a failure to see what the real place of dogs was meant to be shows that modern society has become soft-headed about dogs. However science is now making it quite clear that even from the dawn of domestication dogs already had a place in human lives as valued companions that we willingly provided with affection and care.

The most recent evidence for our continuing fondness and emotional involvement with dogs comes from a report in the Journal of Archaeological Science. A team of researchers headed by Luc Janssens of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands took a new look at the contents of a grave which was discovered over a century ago in a suburb of Bonn, Germany. The grave was dated to approximately 14,000 years ago, in the Paleolithic era (early Stone Age). It contained two humans, one a middle-aged male and the other a female in her early 20s. In addition it contained the skeletons of two dogs, an older one and a puppy. Obviously the fact that the humans were buried with the dogs suggests that there was some sort of a bond between the people and the canines in and of itself.

I am sure that my skeptical colleague would dismiss the idea that the burial of the dogs with the people suggests some emotional attachment. He might argue that the dogs were ceremonially buried with the people merely to serve as guards, or to help the spirits of the dead hunt for game in the afterlife. However, careful analysis of the remains shows more clearly some things about that puppy and its relationship to the people it lived with.

This younger dog died at an age of around seven months. An analysis of its bones and teeth revealed that the young dog likely had a serious case of morbillivirus, which is more familiarly known as canine distemper. Analysis of the dogs teeth showed that the pup likely contracted the disease at around 3 to 4 months of age, and it probably suffered from two or perhaps three periods of serious illness each lasting up to six weeks.

Canine distemper is a nasty illness that usually progresses in three phases. During the first week dogs suffering from this disease can show signs of high fever, lack of appetite, lethargy, diarrhea and vomiting. According to the researchers up to 90 percent of dogs with distemper die during the second phase of the disease when symptoms include a severely congested nose and the illness often escalates into pneumonia. In the third phase of the disease dogs can start to have seizures and show evidence of other neurological problems.

Now here is the interesting part. Given the severity of this disease this young dog would have likely died very shortly after contracting it, unless it received intensive human care. The researchers say that such care “would have consisted of keeping the dog warm and clean [from the] diarrhea, urine, vomit [and] saliva”. In addition the researchers note that humans would have had to bring the pup water and possibly had to hand feed it. According to lead researcher Janssens, “Without adequate care, a dog with a serious case of distemper will die in less than three weeks,” This dog was clearly seriously ill but it survived a further eight weeks, which would only be possible if it had been well cared for.

In a statement Janssens goes on to say, “While it was sick, the dog would not have been of any practical use as a working animal. This, together with the fact that the dogs were buried with people, who we may assume were their owners, suggests that there was a unique relationship of care between humans and dogs as long as 14,000 years ago.”

To my mind such data coming from Paleolithic human beings, demonstrates that our emotional bond with dogs can hardly be considered to be a modern development.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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