While you read this, there is likely a snoring Corgi-Pug mix — picture a snub-nosed fox crossed with an excitable fire log — plastered against my leg. His name is Murray, and he loves people, in this order: me, my husband, and everyone he has ever met.
Once, we took Murray to the vet to ask if there was a medication that would chill him out when other people come over, because he reacts to visitors like a wound-up toddler. Look at me! Play with me! Accept my warm welcome in the form of a running leap at your head!
And then he barks and barks and barks, in the friendliest way possible, in a bid for the most possible attention. The barking was the part that had brought us to the office that day; the rest of it’s honestly pretty sweet.
“Can dogs take Valium?” we wondered.
“There is nothing wrong with him!” said the vet. “He just has too many emotions at once!”
As he said this, Murray’s tubular body was wiggling from end to end, his perfectly curled tail was wagging at full speed, and then he barked at the vet in a manner I would translate as, “HI, IT’S ME, YOUR PAL, MURRAY! HI! HI! HI!”
“Just ignore him until he calms down,” said the vet, ignoring him.
“You’re funny,” I said, as Murray climbed my trunk and barked, repeatedly, directly in my ear as if to say, “TELL THE VET IT’S ME, HIS PAL, MURRAY! IF HE DOESN’T PET ME, I WILL DIE!”
The vet would not give us Valium.
Barking aside, Murray’s enthusiasm for meeting other people — and dogs, cats, squirrels, pigeons, raccoons, etc. — is fundamentally the reason I consider myself a dog person. Cat people have told me that they enjoy the feeling of being chosen by a highly discerning creature, but I don’t want to live with a tiny elitist. I want to live with a bottomless well of love and joy, offered freely to all. “Hello, are you trying to murder me right now? No? OK, cool, I will never forsake you!”
Obviously, not every dog is so cheerfully promiscuous; I used to have an elderly Chihuahua who liked people in this order: me, absolutely no one. But as a recent New York Times article explored, there exists science to suggest that dogs, as a species, are genetically programmed to love everyone. Researchers at Princeton, writes James Gorman: “Identified genes in dogs that in humans are associated with Williams-Beuren syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. One of the many symptoms of the syndrome is indiscriminate friendliness.”
According to Clive Wynne, author of "Dog Is Love: How and Why Your Dog Loves You," that friendliness extends not just to their human companions, but to other species in general — sheeps, goats, other dogs, you name it. Granted, I have a friend who keeps a list of other species she’s pulled out of her husky’s mouth in varying states of animation, but the point is that dogs are “an astonishing evolutionary success” because of their unique ability to love the ones they’re with. (They may need to get to know another species before moving them from the “food” to the “friend” category, but they’ll get there.)
Skeptics will say “love” is too strong a word for dogs’ relationships with other species, or with each other. And if you’re the kind of person who needs scientific proof that dogs love, I admit I cannot offer you that.
But then, I can’t offer you scientific proof that I can love, either. I have only my testimony: I adore this fuzzy sack of flour snoring against my leg so, so much. Sometimes, I look at him and want to cry, because his little face gives me too many emotions at once.
Maybe that’s dogs’ real evolutionary advantage — not that they love so easily, but that they’re so easy to love. Either way, they’ve survived and thrived in numbers and configurations well beyond anything their wolf ancestors could have dreamed of, and they’ve done it by behaving as though everyone they meet both deserves love and, if approached in the proper spirit, will most likely return it.
Whether it’s a genuine emotional bond or wishful thinking, then, the love we feel from and for dogs is a manifestation of our better natures.
Dogs don’t fight about whether everyone deserves equal rights or share memes that originated in Russian bot farms. Dogs don’t care what breed anybody is or where they used to live. Dogs just act as though they believe everyone deserves to be happy, fed, sheltered and comforted when they’re sick or sad. Radical, unconditional love — giving it and inspiring it in others — is one key to their survival. Imagine if it were the same for us.