Nick also reports that Wes makes visits to pubs and cafés much more convivial by charming friends and serving staff alike. This all adds up to an enjoyable dog-owning experience – one that would be much less enjoyable if Wes weren’t well-trained. “It’s really stressful to have to live with a dog that’s got behavioural problems,” says Westgarth, explaining that even people who consider themselves loving and attentive owners often miss early signs that dogs are stressed or unhappy. The first 16 months of a dog’s life, she says, are crucial for ensuring the dog is well-socialised and familiar with potentially frightening stimuli, such as the sounds of washing machines, lorries and fireworks. The quality of the breeder is very important, says Westgarth; you should buy puppies only from breeders who are qualified in using reward-based training methods.
You’ll find that a new puppy seems almost perfectly designed to arouse human affection – far more so than the wolves from whom all dogs are descended. As Clive Wynne, a behavioural scientist and founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, tells me, the course of events probably went something like this: tens of thousands of years ago, possibly in more than one place, a group of wolves got in the habit of scavenging the half-eaten bones and suchlike left by a band of itinerant hunter-gatherers. The wolves, already having a good source of food, didn’t attack the humans, and would raise the alarm when predators such as bears drew near. “That meant,” says Dr Wynne, “that the people started to take an active interest in them. They started thinking: ‘Well, you know, maybe we should make sure there’s always some leftovers for these animals because they’re kind of useful to have around.’” Then, says Wynne, “the big change happens”.
As Westgarth says: “There are things like the way dogs have evolved to make eye expressions, and certain ways we’ve designed breeds to look, so that they look more babyish in their faces. They’ve got bigger eyes, they can raise their eyebrows in a certain way” – that famous puppy-dog look, which dogs display only to humans rather than other dogs – “that makes us go gooey over them.”
Thus we can’t help falling in love with dogs. But crucially, says Wynne, dogs fall in love with us, too. “Their superpower is their incredible capacity for love, their amazing affection. Experiencing that kind of unconditional love in your life lifts you up.”
How did dogs end up like this? Wynne, the author of Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, explains. “There were some changes in the genetic material along the way that mean that dogs have a capacity, or drive, to form strong emotional connections very, very readily and very easily. If we saw it in our own species, you’d actually think that there was something wrong with people.”
Nick has been trying his best to clamp down on Wes’s face-licking, by the way. Dropping his voice to a half-whisper, he confides that Wes “is a little bit dense. He’s just pure love. He’s actually not the smartest dog in the world – he just lives for giving hugs”.
One can imagine the horror of Wes’s fearsome lupine forefathers if they’d known what their descendants would become. Then again, dogs are the beloved sidekick of the most powerful species on Earth. They have won the game of evolution, and they’ve done it by making us happy.
What the experts say
- It’s not dogs that make us happy… the causal reason is that dogs change our behaviour.
Laurie Santos, Professor of psychology at Yale and creator of the podcast The Happiness Lab
- There are things dogs have evolved – like raising their eyebrows – that make us go gooey
Carri Westgarth, Senior lecturer in human-animal interaction at the University of Liverpool
- Their superpower is their capacity for love, their amazing affection – that lifts you up
Clive Wynne, Director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University