Wild Things

What I Learned About Dogs and Love While Crossing the Country With My Lab

Benoit Denizet-Lewis and Casey
The author and his dog, Casey.

Photo by Amanda Jones

Excerpted from Travels With Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Out now from Simon & Schuster.

Casey and I stopped in Sarasota, Florida, to meet Cary, a woman who’d read about my journey and suggested that I come meet her black Lab, Pepe. I told her and her husband, Mike, about Piper, a dog I was going to meet that afternoon in Tampa. Piper had bitten a home intruder two years prior, only to have the robber stab her with a crowbar.

“Poor dog,” Cary said. “If someone stabbed my dog, that would be like someone stabbing my child. To me, my pets are like my children. I love them the same.”

Although I adore dogs, I’m surprised when I hear people equate their love for their pets with their love for their kids. Did Cary actu­ally mean to say there’s no difference between the depth of love she feels for her daughters and the affection she has for her dog? If so, was that a sign of some advanced and egalitarian perspective on the value of dif­ferent species? Or was it a sign of insanity? Whatever the case, did Cary really want her daughters to see that in print?

“I don’t have kids,” I told her, “but I imagine that I would love them in a different way than the dogs I’ve loved in my life.”

Though Cary couldn’t tease apart her love for her dogs and her children, she was quick to differentiate between how kids and dogs love their human caretakers. “Dogs never become teenagers,” she told me. “It’s a consistent relationship; the quality of their love for you doesn’t change. They don’t grow up and tell you that you’re the worst. They don’t move out. Even if you screw up, they don’t hold it against you.”

Mike chimed in, “Dogs are like kids, but without the drama or the attitude.”

Cary went on, “A dog’s love is different from human love, because it’s truly unconditional.”

Is it, though? Patricia McConnell writes that “it’s become a cliché that we love dogs because they give us unconditional positive regard.” McConnell calls this belief “naive” and suggests we’ve “convinced ourselves that our dogs love us constantly and relentlessly, simply be­cause we’re not very good at reading their nonverbal communications to us.”

Anthony Podberscek, who studies the human-animal bond, told writer Hal Herzog that the unconditional love theory of pet owner­ship is “rubbish,” a peculiarly American phenomenon that’s dismissive of the intelligence and emotional complexity of pet animals. Podber­scek argues that if we truly believe “that our pets are programmed to mindlessly love us no matter what we do to them,” Herzog reports in his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, “they are essentially Cartesian robots that take whatever we dish out for them and then come back for more.”

Still, I could understand where Cary was coming from. Adolescent dogs are less likely to “hate you” than adolescent humans. As psychiatrist and educator Aaron Katcher once wrote, “a dog is like an eternal Peter Pan, a child who never grows old and who therefore is always available to love and be loved.” Andy Rooney may have pinpointed another ad­vantage that dogs have over kids: We don’t have to listen to dogs com­plain.

“If dogs could talk,” Rooney once said, “it would take a lot of the fun out of owning one.”

* * *

Earlier that week, I’d attended the 19th Annual International Confer­ence on Comparative Cognition at the Radisson Hotel in Melbourne Beach, Florida. (Casey had to stay in the RV because he wasn’t allowed in the hotel.) The most pressing concern for canine cognition researchers was the motivation of the American dog. Can dogs be said to love us? Researchers across the world are struggling with variations of that question. Some, like neuroscientist Gregory Berns, flat out equate dogs to people in this regard and insist that canines very much love us. Others don’t go nearly that far.

“Do dogs hang out with us mostly because we’re treat-dispensers, or can they be said to have a real and genuine affection for us?” won­dered Erica Feuerbacher, a conference attendee who was a Ph.D. candi­date at the University of Florida at the time. We spoke on the hotel patio, only feet from the beach. “Has something changed along domestication from wolves where our interaction or our presence is rewarding to them in itself?” she said. “We have these sayings in everyday life about dogs and uncondi­tional love, and dogs being ‘man’s best friend,’ but what produces and maintains that relationship? We don’t really know.”

To begin to explore that question, Feuerbacher devised an experiment to test whether dogs would work harder for a reward that consisted of food or human petting. The results were predictable—and depressing. Dogs want our treats more than they want our love.

The University of Florida’s Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab was led at the time of my visit by psychologist Clive Wynne, a former pigeon researcher considered by some to be the Debbie Downer of the canine cognition field. (He has since moved to Arizona State University.) Among those who study the intelligence and emotions of dogs, Wynne has perhaps been the most adamant about not looking through the lens of anthropomorphism.

“People may behave like animals,” he once said, “but dogs are just good at being dogs.”

“Our love for dogs can sometimes lead us—even those of us who are supposed to be guided by the science—to exaggerate just how much they truly grasp,” Wynne told me during a break at the confer­ence. Though dogs’ behavior can seem uncannily human, Wynne stresses that dogs have vastly different cognitive and perceptive abilities. “I un­derstand why people sometimes think their dogs are incredibly intel­ligent, to the point of being able to sometimes read our minds,” he said. “When you get up from your chair at home, sometimes you’re headed to the bathroom, sometimes you’re headed to the kitchen to make coffee, and sometimes you’re headed to take the dog for a walk. Why does the dog so often stay lying down when you do the first two, but not the third? Is the dog a mind-reader? No. But your dog is a master at observing you and looking for any correlations between your move­ments and the crucial outcomes for the dog—being fed, going to the bathroom, that kind of thing.”

Wynne believes that dogs learn by socialization and observation, and that there’s not all that much difference between the brain of a dog and a wolf. Others, including Brian Hare, who runs the Duke Canine Cognition Center, fundamentally disagree, arguing that domestication has rewired the dogs’ brains and given them a remarkable ability to understand human gestures and cues.

“Brian and I have a massive disagreement,” Wynne said, “and we could probably make some money by going on the road and debating this.”

Wynne and Hare do agree on one thing, though: They’re not all that interested in figuring out whether dogs are as smart as 2-year-olds. When I visited Hare earlier in my journey at his Duke University lab, he told me that dog lovers often want answers to questions that can’t really be measured.

“At my lab, we’re not trying to understand if dogs are little people,” Hare said. “I understand why people want to know if their dog is as smart as a 2-year-old—the dog lover in me kind of wants to know that, too. But from an evolutionary perspective, that question doesn’t make a lot of sense. If I had some magic way to transplant a chim­panzee brain into a dolphin and a dolphin brain into a chimpanzee, that wouldn’t tell us much, because each brain has evolved to solve really different problems.”

After visiting Cary and Mike, I stayed on the topic of kids and dogs later that afternoon in Tampa, when I visited a stay-at-home mom named Kim and her dogs, Piper (the mutt who’d been stabbed by the intruder) and Hunter (a Brittany). We sat with Kim’s mother and daughter on the back patio overlooking their pool and the ballfields of an adjacent middle school. As we spoke, two squirrels tortured Piper, Hunter, and Casey by racing back and forth on top of a wooden fence.

After I told them about my conversation earlier that day in Sara­sota, Kim’s mom, Carol—a youthful and funny psychotherapist in her 60s—recalled the pain of losing her favor­ite dog, Shoshanna. “She died a few years after my husband passed,” Carol said, “and what made it especially painful was that she was my connection to my husband. It was his dog, his love. I mean, he let that dog sit on the table at dinner! When Shoshanna died, it brought up all the feelings of losing my husband again.”

At that moment, Casey, who had been wandering through the yard, spotted an armadillo on the other side of the chain-link fence that sepa­rated Kim’s property from the school’s fields. He let out two barks in quick succession and rushed toward the fence, but he could only watch as the armadillo—moving with surprising deftness for an animal carry­ing an armored shell—scurried away.

“It’s certainly the natural cycle for dogs to die before us,” Carol continued, “and in many ways they teach us how to deal with loss.”

I looked at Casey, who had forgotten about the armadillo and was now busy sniffing a bush. It occurred to me—I mean, really occurred to me—that he wouldn’t live forever. I felt a tightness in my chest, a kind of panic.

“I don’t want Casey to die,” I heard myself saying out loud, though I’d only intended the words for myself.

Then I thought about what might happen if I died before Casey. Who would look after him? I hadn’t prepared a will, hadn’t made any arrangements. But those were mere practicalities. Where my mind went, I’m ashamed to admit, is toward more ego-based questions: Would Casey even notice that I was gone? Would he be sad? Would he mourn me? The answers seemed painfully clear to me that afternoon in Florida: maybe, probably not, and no.

From Travels With Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Copyright © 2014 by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Printed by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.