Heavy Petting


Can you ever love your dog too much? (And no, we don’t mean it that way.)

I encountered Sam, a 34-year-old investment banker, and his dog, Namath, when Sam responded to a column I wrote. He told me he loves his dog “to death,” so much that it sometimes unnerves him. Sam and Namath, a German shepherd/husky mix adopted three years ago from a shelter in Brooklyn, jog together, play Frisbee, take long hikes in the Catskills. Sam was planning a Caribbean vacation last year but decided instead to rent a cabin in New Hampshire so that Namath could come along. “I have to say it was great, one of the best times I’ve ever had,” he reported. He’s considering leaving New York City so that Namath can have more space to run.

Human companionship? Sometimes Sam dates, but he’s increasingly inclined to stay home with Namath, who’s more fun to be with than most of his dates, he says. He’s rarely more content than when he and Namath are relaxing on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn, watching ESPN. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him, nothing he wouldn’t do for me,” Sam says. “We understand each other.”

A few weeks ago I also heard from a married California couple in their late 20s who doubt they’ll have children “because we are so content” with one another and their two Rottweilers. “We could not love any children more than we love our dogs, to be honest,” the husband explained. “We see the dogs as the glue that helps keep our relationship strong.”

And Jane, whom I’ve known for years, is a former computer programmer who just sold her suburban Boston home and moved to a ranch house on five acres in upstate New York with her seven golden retrievers—all rescued dogs with cancer, heart disease, or bone disease. She intends, she says, “to spend the rest of my life with these dogs. I want to take care of them and make them happy. Often in my life I’ve felt let down by people, but never by my dogs.”

I’ve been living with my border collies on a farm this winter and spring. There have been moments—I think of one bitter, black winter night when the dogs and I sat huddled together in front of a wood stove while the wind wailed outside—that I, too, felt that love beyond words, pure and powerful.

Dog love can be comic or disturbing, painful or uplifting, neurotic, joyful, all of the above. Since the dog cannot put any limits on it, dog love can be boundless, sometimes growing beyond our intentions.

For everyone—dog owners and non-dog owners alike—loving human beings is difficult, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Dog love is safer, perhaps more satisfying: Dogs can’t betray us, undermine us, tell us they’re angry or bored. Dogs can’t leave.

Our voiceless companions, dogs are a blank canvas on which we can paint anything we wish. When it comes to love, that’s a powerful temptation. Are dog and human love compatible? Dog love can lead human beings away from one another and from the painstaking work of coming to terms with our own species. But dogs can teach wounded people how to trust and love again. They can ease loneliness, buffer pain.

Behavioral research suggests that men and women love dogs equally, but often in different ways. Men usually love dogs because they don’t talk, which makes them the perfect pals. A guy can have an intense relationship, like Samuel does with Namath, and never have to discuss it. Women are more likely to see dogs as emotionally complex creatures; it’s disturbingly common to hear them say their dogs understand their moods better than their boyfriends; that their dogs know when they’re upset, but their husbands don’t.

There are various kinds of dog love. Some I’ve noticed:

Partner love: Working dogs—herders, hunters, bomb sniffers, agility and obedience performers, search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs—have a particular kind of connection with their owners and handlers, forged by years of training and working together. My border collie Rose and I have spent months together herding sheep. We anticipate each other, communicate without words. We are almost telepathic.

Victim love: Dog rescuers­—those tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly female, who scour animal shelters for dogs in trouble—see a lot of ugly human behavior and its consequences, too much, sometimes. The bonds between rescued dogs and those who heal and adopt them are among the strongest of human-animal attachments. This love often taps into the owner’s own anger, painful history, and sense of victimization—as well as her need to nurture and heal, and to be nurtured and healed.

Surrogate love: Certain people treat their dogs like family members rather than pets—substitutes for the children or spouses they don’t have or don’t like. Such owners lavish all the toys, food, activities, and affection on their dog that they would customarily give children. But the dogs don’t talk back, drink and smoke pot in the basement, or discover and point out our stupidity and failings. In surrogate love, unlike partner or victim love, the dog can sometimes be a one-for-one replacement for a human.

The intensity of dog love can sometimes be disturbing. People and dogs have been boon companions for thousands of years, but these contemporary kinds of dog love are new. A recent Yankelovich study for American Demographics found that nearly a third of respondents—and half of all single people—said that of everyone in their lives, they relied most on pets for companionship and affection. Distressingly often, owners have confessed to me that they could survive the loss of a companion or spouse, but they’re not sure how they could live without their dog.

I’ve become a dog-love rationalist: Love them all you want, but maintain some perspective on what they are and where your love comes from.

A couple of years back, a University of Kentucky psychiatrist who studies human-animal bonds sent me a classic work, Twins, by the late British analyst and author Dorothy Burlingham. Burlingham wrote about the power of fantasies in very young children, especially during moments when they are lonely or frightened. A child, she wrote, may take “an imaginary animal as his intimate and beloved companion; subsequently he is never separated from his animal friend. This animal offers the child what he is searching for: faithful love and unswerving devotion. The two share everything, good and bad experiences, and complete understanding of each other; either speech is not necessary, or they have a secret language; the understanding between them goes beyond the realm of consciousness.”

This yearning, then, is part of many of our lives from our earliest years. What begins as a potent, comforting fantasy later ripens. Dogs now at our sides, we escape from loneliness and solitude, find “faithful love and unswerving devotion.” We feel, rightly or not, as if we share complete understanding; certainly we have a secret language. Our love goes beyond the words we have. We finally find our intimate and beloved companions.