I am a dog person. Always have been, and will be so for the rest of my life. And I love big dogs; the bigger they are, the more I get to hug and cuddle with. Although to be honest, I am also fond of Dachshunds, having had one for 12 years, they have a special place in my life as the best winter warmers, for my cold feet.
Growing up, I always had dogs around me. My grandparents loved dogs, my mom loved dogs (that’s where my brother and I definitely get it). Our dogs were family, never show-ponies for the world. I miss all my darlings. I remember calling up my dad from the UK, and telling him ofcourse I miss him, but I missed Fido (my doberman) and Caesar ( my dachshund) even more because I couldn’t talk them.
Right now, we have a Great Dane, Mufasa. My brother is going to contest the we here because Mufasa is his dog, and I know it. (You should see how Mufasas eyes follow Anuj around the house, it’s adorable). But from his puppy-dom to the first 6 months of his life, I mothered that cutie. So for me, it’s a we-dog. I am his mommy, nuff said.
But I am far away in Melbourne, and my brother and Mufasa are all the way back in India. And try as I might, I have been unable to get a dog here. Tried applying for foster care, volunteer work, but to no avail. Just going to go plonk myself in the RSPCA office and wait out my watch.
So anyhow, to curb the dog craving in my life, I started reading a lot of books about my favourite animal. Mostly written by animal behaviorists, these books talk about why our dogs behave the way they do, how they observe us, what can we do to improve communications with them, and the behaviorists also share anecdotes from their personal and professional lives. For a dog-affection starved me, it’s like manna, like a drug that I get a pooch-high from.
How Our Dogs Love Us is written by Gregory Berns (MD, PhD), who like all of us crazy dog lovers would constantly wonder what our dogs are thinking. All of us think we know what our dogs are saying, but these are surmised guesses at best, not scientific rationale or deductions. Nothing wrong in that too. But so much of the dog-human interaction could be improved if we just approached behavioural problems with logical reasoning, and not just on the basis of give treat, dog will sit.
The question that Berns asked, that most resounded with me, was when he wondered if his dogs loved him the way he loved them. If someone asked me if Pixie (my gorgeous lady Doberman who passed away in 1994) loved me, I would answer with a thumping yes. But if they asked me how much did she love me in comparison to how much did she love mom (the one who fed her), and dad (the one who walked her), I wouldn’t be able to tell you confidently. Of course she loved me more than she cared for the next door neighbour, but in our family, I might not have been her top-dog :)
So you know how Berns attempted to answer these and many other questions? He decided to do MRI scans on willing and participating dogs and owners, starting with his own pet Callie. As a research scientist in Emory University at Atlanta, he was backed by his brilliant team (most of them were dog-people). None of the sick and abusive treatment of animals under his watch, he wanted to treat the dogs with the utmost respect, and provided them with time and the right training.
You should read the book to learn more about the trials, tribulations and the hilarity of getting the dogs into the scanner. Its so insightful and enriching. The more I read it, the more I realised that we confuse our dogs more with our sub-conscious behaviour than how much we actually teach them. And our dogs are not always incentivised to do something for us just because we feed them.
But my favourite part of the book?
You know that question, as proprietorial as it sounds, of Does my dog know I am family, and someone else is just a friend/acquaintance? Does Mufasa still remember me, even though I am so far away from him? You know they do, but getting a scientific validation is just heartbreakingly delightful.
Gregory Berns had the same idea for one of his experiments, and he ran 3 categories of scents past Callie: self, family, and st,ranger in dogs and people both. Sure enough, when the scent swabs of family (dog and human) was passed to Callie, the caudate area in her brain (where the pleasure centres get activated) lit up like crazy, plus her brain cells worked less harder to track or identify their scents, coz she knew them, and had filed them already. With the stranger scent, she worked harder to store them in her brain, plus no caudate activity.
I cried a bit when I read it. I don’t know why. Call it emotional gratification, maybe.
To know more about Gregory Berns, you can visit his website at http://www.gregoryberns.com
To know more about his book, you can click here