Is Our Sense of Love for Dogs, a Modern Invention?

Some believe the human-canine bond is a modern invention.

Posted Jun 02, 2010

I was recently attending a university sponsored event and found myself speaking to some other professors in attendance. When the topic of conversation turned to dogs I mentioned to the group that I had just come across a wonderful quotation, by Roger Caras, an author who also served as the president of the ASPCA. It went "We give them the love we can spare, the time we can spare. In return dogs have given us their absolute all. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made." I brought it up because I thought that it nicely summarized my own feelings about dogs.

A professor from the English Department, gave a little snort of disdain and proceeded to tell me, "I am amazed at how a scientist like you has been sucked into this sentimentality for dogs. This idea that dogs feel any loyalty and love for humans is a modern invention. In fact the idea that people form sentimental attachments for dogs is probably a similar recent event which became acceptable in modern times since, people moving into high population centers, like cities, often feel emotionally isolated and therefore direct some of their pent up feelings toward pets. Look back at the literature from two or three centuries ago and you won't find any mentions of the loving loyalty of dogs, nor will you find mention of any ancient warrior prince shedding a single tear for one of his dogs."

This is a common argument, which, in its various forms, suggests that the people of today have all gone soft. Part of the evidence for this is the fact that we have deep emotional attachment for our pet dogs, and also anthropomorphize them so as to suggest that they also have a deep emotional attachment for us. Certainly the tough, independent people of years gone by had no such feelings for or about their dogs. It must be that soft-headed, romantic writers of popular literature have spread these sentimental ideas concerning dogs.

However, such arguments are false. Dogs have been in our emotional lives for virtually all of recorded history. Western literature is generally marked as having begun with two epic poems, by Homer. The first is the Iliad (describing the Trojan War), and the second, the Odyssey, centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. They were probably composed near the end of the eighth century BC, somewhere in Ionia, which was a Greek-speaking coastal region in what is now Turkey.

In Homer's epic, it took Odysseus ten years to reach his home in Ithaca. After being away for so long, those at home assumed he had died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus were forced to deal with an unpleasant group of suitors who had taken over his house while competing for Penelope's hand in marriage. In order to secretly re-enter his house to ultimately spring a surprise attack on the suitors, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar, and enters in the company of the swine herder, Eumaeus. As he approaches his home after his long absence, he finds his dog Argos lying neglected on a pile of dung, old, weary and decrepit. Argos is the only one who recognizes him and tries to greet him. A modern text version of this portion of the story goes:

As Odysseus and Eumaeus were talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had had but little time to spend enjoying his company. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to fertilize the fields; and he was full of fleas. As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears, wagged his tail in joyful recognition, and tried to rise, but he was too frail and could not get close to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, he wiped a tear from his eyes without Eumaeus seeing it, and said:

Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

"Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?"

"This hound," answered Eumaeus, "belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him."

So saying they entered the mansion, and made straight for the ill-behaving pretenders in the hall. Behind them, Argos lay back down and finally allowed himself to pass into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after nearly twenty years.

I turned to my colleague and asked, "Then what about the literary description of the relationship between Odysseus and Argos? The Odyssey was composed some 28 centuries ago. As I recall, there is only one time in that entire epic where the bold and brave warrior Odysseus sheds a tear, and that is when he sees his old loyal, faithful dog Argos, struggling to approach him after his many years away."

I will give my colleague credit for having the humor and humility to laughingly respond, "Well, perhaps some modern inventions, like the human-dog bond and the idea of reciprocal feelings of love and loyalty between people and dogs, simply arrived well in advance of the rest of our modern age."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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

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