by Francesca Giammona, PhD Candidate at Wake Forest University
The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s (SICB’s) 2021 Meeting had many great symposia, but one that struck me as particularly interesting was the symposia on canine science (S11 Biology’s Best Friend: Bridging Disciplinary Gaps to Advance Canine Science for issue 1 of 2021).
In thinking about the current state of knowledge concerning man’s best friend, I decided to do a bit of extracurricular reading on the topic. I found the book Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, by Dr. Clive D. L. Wynne. This book does an incredible job of laying out what scientists know about dogs’ emotions, and whether they are capable of loving us in the same way that we love them.
Based on the title of the book, you may be able to figure out how Dr. Wynne feels about the subject. Dr. Wynne is a behavioral scientist who focuses the majority of his research efforts on the behavior of dogs and their wild relatives, in addition to being a dog-owner himself. He is particularly interested in the attachments that dogs form with their human companions, and how that bond may manifest itself through the behavior of both dogs and their humans. Dr. Wynne was kind enough to sit down for an interview for the ICB Blog.
When you first started working on animal behavior, you mention in your book that you studied smaller, arguably less culturally important animals like rats and pigeons. Was the shift to studying dogs sparked by a particular event or did it happen gradually?
It was specific, but gradual. I had been in Australia studying marsupials, which was a lot of fun and got me out of the standard animal lab studying primarily pigeons. When I moved to the United States in 2002, I had to give up the marsupials and I had a bit of a mid-life crisis in so far as I was frankly getting bored working with just pigeons. And so, I was looking for some new species to study and I was coming to the realization that I wasn’t just fascinated by animal minds and animal behavior, but I was actually very interested in the interaction between people and other species. It’s sort of embarrassing to admit that it took me a couple of years to figure out that I needed to be studying dogs…half of humanity lives with a dog, and that’s the oldest relationship with any animal species that people have.
You mention in your book that you worked a great deal with wolves, which is something that your audience, even if they are familiar with dogs, might not be so familiar with. I was hoping you could give me just a little bit more detail about how you felt working with them, and how they worked with you.
Working with wolves is tremendously exciting…the sense of coming into the presence of individuals of great power is very strong. You can’t get away from the stories you’ve heard ever since you were a little kid about the Big Bad Wolf and [their] sense of strength, and their social interactions are often quite rough. They’re not trying to kill each other, and yet their growl is intimidating. They’re all rough and tumble and wrestle, and you see them play. I’ve never seen them actually truly fight, but you get this sense of power and awesomeness, in the strong sense of the word…It feels an honor to enter into their space and have them interact with you peacefully and gently and socially.
The actual experience from a scientific point of view was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had, because there were these claims in the literature that dogs had certain kinds of cognition that no other animal shared – that [dogs possessed] specifically human attuned forms of cognition. And so, when we went to Wolf Park [a sanctuary for wolves where Dr. Wynne has conducted research] for the first time, we carried out these very simple tests where you just point at things and see if the animal will go where you point. We found that the wolves are actually fantastic at this, when they weren’t supposed to be able to do it at all. It was…intellectually, one of the most exciting moments in my life.
At the end of the book, you talk a lot about how dogs deserve better from us humans and how we can make their lives a little bit better, particularly in terms of not leaving dogs at home all day where they can get very lonely, and other things of that nature. Given this, I was wondering how you feel about the growing pet luxury industry, where people are getting high-end clothes and items for their dogs.
I’m broadly speaking indifferent really. I mean, I don’t mind, I have no reason to object if people have wealth and they want to spend it on things that they think are good for their dog…It doesn’t, by and large do the dog’s any harm. Some of them do some good…and I’m presuming that you’re paying for veterinary care and you’re getting your dog decent food, and that you make sure your dog has adequate exercise. Then I would look at the question of whether your dog is lonely. I love my dog so much. I’m always tempted to buy her toys and treats, but she’s never very interested. [During the] pandemic, I’m home all day every day. But…when I was out of the house more, I would spend my money on protecting her from loneliness. And there are different ways you can do that. There are doggy daycares, and dog walkers who can come to your house, or whatever you might do personally.
People who study human psychology [say] that experiences are worth more than objects. And that if you have money, you should invest in experiences rather than buying yourself new toys. I would say the same thing for your dog.
And if you have money and you want to spend it to make your dog’s life better, then look to investing in experiences and protecting your dog from loneliness…The other thing I would say is get to know your individual dog. People nowadays will email me or message me, asking my advice about [their] particular situation. What should we do with this particular situation? I don’t know. Your dog is an individual. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to ask a stranger, even a stranger with some expertise about dog behavior – what do we do with this dog here?
This is an individual, right? It’s just like with human beings, some humans are “huggy” and some humans are less “huggy”. There’s no point making a generalized statement about whether you should hug other human beings. And there’s no point making a generalized statement about [whether you] should hug dogs. You should attend to how your dog reacts when you interact with him or her, and adjust your behavior to make sure that he or she is comfortable. Each [dog] is the unique combination of genetic inheritance and personal experiences – the nature and the nurture come together in each individual to make each individual utterly unique. Obviously there are certain things you shouldn’t do to any dog, you know, painful things, but as to whether hugging is a good idea or not – ask your dog. You should have enough rapport with your dog that you can tell how comfortable he feels he is.
I know that you said your research has slowed down a bit because of [the pandemic], but is there anything that’s particularly exciting that you’re working on or that you feel comfortable talking about – are there any sorts of fun studies that are going to come out?
A lot of our work, [around] 80%, is quite applied. I don’t go into that much in the book, because that’s not what the book is about. But we have been able to keep a lot of that going during the pandemic. Particularly, we’re doing a big project funded by Maddie’s Fund, which is a dog charity, looking at the benefits of fostering. So [the research is about] dogs that are living in shelters, living in kennels. We know that’s very stressful and very negative from every point of view for the dogs. We’ve done studies showing that if people borrow the dogs, even for just a weekend, that that improves the dog’s welfare on all measures you could think of. Their behavior gets better. Their stress hormones go down, and they’re more likely to be adopted. During the pandemic, we’ve been assisting remotely with shelters all around the country, a total of nearly a hundred shelters, helping them to institute these programs, helping them to get dogs out of the door.
Dr. Clive Wynne with his own dog, Xephos. Image taken from Dr. Wynne’s website https://www.clivewynne.com/
Dr. Wynne was incredibly insightful in our interview and throughout his book about how dogs may feel about their lives and relationship to humans, and what we can do to make their lives better. He sums up his sentiment towards man’s best friend perfectly in the finals words of his book: “To be loved by a dog is a great privilege, perhaps one of the finest in a human life. May we prove ourselves worthy of it.” To learn more about Maddie’s Fund, which Dr. Wynne has partnered with to increase the welfare of shelter dogs, you can view their work here. To learn more about Dr. Wynne, his work, and where to purchase Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, you can visit his website.
connect with Francesca Giammona , PhD Candidate at Wake Forest University | Studying biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion of fishes
See papers from ICB’s upcoming issue 1, due out later in July, already in advanced:
by Bryce et al
by Sipple et al
by Gompper et al