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FERGUSON: It’s nice to have a partner

I’ve always been a little surprised at the many types of animals some people keep as pets. I think that most animals should be living outside in their normal environments instead of being confined in our houses in tanks and cages. Fish were meant to swim in rivers or ponds or oceans, not in little glass bowls. Birds were meant to stretch their wings and fly, not sit in cages in our living rooms. And rodents and snakes were meant to do whatever it is they do, hopefully a long way away from wherever I happen to be doing.

I think dogs are different, though. They seem to want to be our partners in life. I’ve had some dogs that temporarily answered the call of the wild and ran away on me, but for the most part, they seem to prefer to stick around. Their natural habitat seems to be our backyards and (if we allow it) our living rooms and bedrooms. I have often wondered why dogs seem to have such a natural affinity for humans. Frankly I don’t think we are all that likable as a species and the wariness exhibited toward us by most of the animal kingdom seems to me an example of them using good judgment.

So how is it that we have acquired such a (often unearned) level of devotion and affection from our canine companions? We’d have to go back anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 years to find the answer. Though we can’t know the actual date because cavemen were notoriously bad historians, anthropologists believe humans in Europe first domesticated a breed of wolf that no longer exists that became the ancestor of modern dogs during that time. So our partnership goes a very long way back indeed.

Humans and dogs have evolved together since then, and they have developed similarities to us that no other animal shares. Their brains and digestive systems share a surprising similarity to ours at a genetic level. That’s why they can eat most of the same foods we eat and they have communication skills and emotional responsiveness that any dog owner will tell you can be downright astounding. One of the more interesting things researchers have discovered recently about our relationship with canines is the importance of eye contact between dogs and their owners and the effect this behavior has inside the brains of both.

Both dog and human brains have been found to release oxytocin when they maintain eye contact with one another for more than a brief period. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone,” and this same chemical is released in a mother’s brain when she makes eye contact with her child. I’m sure you know plenty of dog owners (most of them probably) who refer to and treat their dogs like children. Now we know that’s not just empty talk -- both the dog and its human feel the same level of connection in their brain that human parents and children feel for one another (at least until the kids are teenagers.)

It really is amazing the way our canine partners express themselves with their eyes. My dog will stare me down when he wants or needs something. And he knows instinctively that I can’t sit there and ignore him when he does it. So I have to go through the list with him until his reaction tells me I’ve figured out what he wants. Does he need to go out? Is he hungry or thirsty? Is it time for our walk? Life has to stop until the mystery is solved.

The struggle to survive in this world is difficult for all living things. Sometimes it’s good to have a partner. I don’t know if we would have made it this far without our four-footed companion species, but I know our lives are a lot happier having them along for the ride.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com.

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