Interview with Clive Wynne About Dog Is Love

"The dog is a highly social living being that needs to have company or else it’s going to be in psychological distress."

An interview with Clive Wynne about  Dog is Love

An interview with Prof. Clive Wynne about his wonderful new book, Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, about how he came to realize that what’s special about dogs is not their intelligence, but their capacity for love. Dog Is Love was the Animal Book Club’s  for October 2019 and was also on my winter reading list.

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Zazie: Your own dog, Xephos, is mentioned in the book. How has she influenced your research?

Clive: I tell people that she’s the book’s spirit animal. She really changed my views on what makes dogs special, what makes dogs so unique. For the first so many years that I was studying dog behaviour and dog psychology, I didn’t have a dog of my own. There were a variety of personal reasons: we’d recently moved internationally, we had a new baby, blah blah blah. But I also had a feeling that I shouldn’t need to have a dog in my own home to be a scientist studying dogs. After all, when I’d been studying marsupials in Australia, I didn’t have pet marsupials, so why should I have a dog in my own home in order to be somebody studying dogs? And that was my intellectual position until we got a dog for personal, family reasons. My wife and my son and I wanted to have a dog. And it made such a difference! Bringing this crazy beast into our lives made such a difference. And I immediately could tell that she felt this warm affectionate bond towards us, and of course we felt them back towards her too.

An interview with Clive Wynne about his book,  Dog Is Love (pictured

At first I kind of intellectually resisted that. I mean I didn’t resist it in my personal feelings or anything, I mean I loved her, but I resisted taking that seriously as part of trying to understand what makes dogs so remarkable and so special. Until one day I just kind of gave in, and I thought well, let’s take this affectionate position seriously, let’s look at this seriously. Animals do have emotional bonds, obviously usually with their own species. Let’s consider from a critical, scientific view, the possibility that what’s going on with dogs is that they have an amazing capacity to form strong emotional bonds. And as soon as I took that possibility seriously, then as you know, what I describe in the book Dog Is Love, it became so clear that that really is what makes dogs the amazing beings that they are. It’s not their intelligence. For all that I’ve met some smart dogs, dogs really don’t have special forms of intelligence that other species don’t have. But they do have a truly remarkable, really quite exaggerated, capacity to form strong emotional connections. And that’s all because of Xephos, who’s here right now paying no attention. She taught me that.

Zazie: That’s really nice. And one of the things you discovered is a genetic link between dogs and some of the same genes involved in Williams Syndrome in people. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Clive: Absolutely. I interest myself in all aspects of dogs. I’m a behavioural psychologist by training, but I try and keep up with different scientific approaches to understanding dogs. There are many different branches of science that contribute to trying to make sense of our dogs. So I read the genetics, and the geneticists have been doing work on dogs now.  They decoded the whole dog genome about 15 years ago. And they’ve been going along, looking at the genetics of dogs and wolves and so on, and trying to identify how our dogs have changed genetically. Ultimately, anything that makes a species or some species unique has to be somehow written in their genetic code. That’s the ultimate, deepest level of analysis for living things, the genetic code.

One of these geneticists published a paper about a decade ago now, Bridget vonHoldt, where she compared the genetic code of wolves to the genetic code of dogs, and she looked to see any place where changes had occurred over the thousands of years since dogs came into being. And that paper contained a hint that there was a section of the dog DNA that showed evidence of having changed from wolves to dogs, and that in human beings if you had changes in that part of the DNA then you would have this syndrome called Williams Syndrome. Now Williams Syndrome is very, very rare, and it involves changes to about 28 genes, so a lot of genes are affected, and it has a wide range of impacts. People with Williams Syndrome have strange facial structure, they have heart defects, they have intellectual problems, they have a whole range of things. But the most intriguing to me was that people with Williams Syndrome are described in the medical literature as showing exaggerated gregariousness. In other words, they are exceptionally friendly. They very readily make new friendships.

So together with my past PhD student Monique Udell, who’s now a professor at Oregon State University, Monique Udell, Bridget vonHoldt the geneticist, and I and some other people formed a collaboration to look at this more closely. We carried out simple behavioural tests of the propensity to form affectionate attachments to people in pet dogs and in hand-reared wolves. Now we tested dogs and wolves on very simple tests of affection, and then we also sent DNA samples to Bridget vonHoldt so that she could look at the genome and the genes of the dogs and the wolves, with a particular focus in on these genes that are involved, in human beings, with Williams Syndrome.

"We take it for granted that a dog can just be left and it’ll be okay. This causes real distress to dogs."

And what we found was that there are three genes that show mutations on the journey from wolf to dog, and in humans if you have mutations in those genes, not only do you have Williams Syndrome, not only do these three genes contribute to Williams Syndrome, but they contribute specifically to those aspects of Williams Syndrome that have to do with forming strong warm friendly relationships. So we’ve been able to identify the genetic changes that took place in the journey from wolves to dogs thousands of years ago. Genetic changes which we know from studies in our own species looking at Williams Syndrome, and also some experimental work that was done on mice where scientists can actually mess around with the genes and seeing what changing a gene does directly to an individual animal. So we have several lines of evidence that dogs are exceptionally gregarious, exceptionally friendly, because of these genetic changes. And that may well be the crux of it. Obviously dogs are different from wolves in many ways, but this I think might be the critical mutation, the critical change, that makes dogs the amazing beings that they are.

Zazie: Following on from that, because the book club were really interested in that topic, member Sarah MacLaren says, “I really enjoyed the book. I would be interested to know if any particular dog breeds express the Williams type behaviour more than others? (Not just in an anecdotal sense like the way we say Labradors are friendly).” So are some dog breeds examples of this more than others?

Clive: Wow. That’s a fantastic question. That is absolutely the question: dog breeds, males and females, all these kinds of things. Right now, we don’t have a definitive answer. We are working on that right now, but it takes time because there are so many dog breeds out there. Anyone who’s picked up a standard encyclopaedia of dog breeds, or even just the different descriptions of dog breeds on the web, different breeds are usually described as being more or less friendly. Some breeds of dog are described as being friends with everybody, other breeds of dog are described as being relatively aloof. But unfortunately, although that may not be inaccurate, it’s not based on any kind of objective scientific analysis. So we have started doing the tests that are necessary – the DNA tests and the behavioural tests – on dogs from different breeds. But there are so many different breeds, and we need to do a fair number of different individuals from each breed, because of course the dogs within one breed, they’re not clones of each other, they are different one individual to another. So we need to be studying a good number of animals from each breed. So the short answer is watch this space! We are studying that question and we do hope to have the answer within a couple of years, but it is taking a while to get enough samples collected and analyzed to be able to say for sure.

"Just have some treats available and encourage people to give them to the dogs, and the animal’s behaviour improves."

Zazie: Exciting! I’ll look forward to hearing about that. The next question is from book club member Melinda Robbins. She says, she really enjoyed chapter 4 on the biological evidence for dogs’ affection. She says, “I’m a biology and genetics nerd. My question is in regard to the foxes that were domesticated in Russia through selective breeding over a short period of time. Do you think their genetics also show these markers of gregariousness?”

Clive: Those foxes definitely do show genetic changes. They are being studied by a geneticist, and they do show genetic changes. At the moment there’s also still an area of ongoing research. I’ve been to Siberia and I’ve met those foxes for myself and it is an amazing experience to have a fox just jump into your arms and try and kiss you. It’s absolutely astonishing. But I’m still not 100% convinced that the way the behaviour of those foxes has changed is identical in all critical ways with the way that our dogs’ behaviour differs from wolf behaviour. The foxes have been around for a bit, but they’re out there in Siberia, they’re not easy to go visit and play with.  So we really do need some more work on that. I have met some people in the United States who have some of these foxes, small numbers of them, and I was kind of surprised that the foxes seem very, very friendly when they’re in their cage. As you come up to their cage they’re tremendously keen to come to you and to interact with you and maybe to jump into your arms. But once you take them out of the cage, they seem to sort of cool down again very quickly. And so I’m not 100% convinced at this point that the foxes are showing identical domestication syndrome patterns of behaviour to what we see in our dogs. The jury is still out, and we really need to do more study on this, but my goodness they’re a fascinating group of animals.

Zazie: This question is from book club member Cathy Shamblin. She has a 13-week-old Kelpie who is learning to herd and has been following her dad Kelpie around the farm. She says, “Does ‘instinct’ inform a dog’s emotional ties to humans? Dogs have an instinctual bond to follow a leader. Do we humans get that instinct mixed up with love?”

Clive: That’s a very interesting question to raise. Most dogs do have a very obvious capacity to form strong emotional bonds, and they have a strong capacity or desire to follow leadership. I have tended to think of those in the same breath, that’s true, but I suppose if I think about it more critically they’re not quite the same thing, in that affection does not have to imply seeing oneself in a subservient role. That’s a very interesting question that I haven’t really thought about deeply up to this point. I do think that for most dogs the kind of affectionate bond that they’re looking for is one where they’re looking for leadership. It’s more like the affection between a juvenile – a child, a puppy – and an adult. I think part of what keeps dogs in such an affectionate state through their lives is that they do stay in a somewhat juvenile state much longer into their lives than we would see in wild animals. So I think a long answer to a short question is, I would say yes, dogs are looking for affection and leadership rolled into one. They’re looking for a somewhat paternal or parental kind of leadership or guidance from us.

"We’ve been able to identify the genetic changes that took place in the journey from wolves to dogs thousands of years ago."

Zazie: Okay, another question from a book club member, Jessica Ring, who says “In chapter 6, you write “It seems to me that the rapidity with which dogs can form new bonds implies that old bonds must fade, but presently this is entirely speculation…”” She says, “I’m curious why you think this, rather than dogs having the capacity to form additional bonds while maintaining existing ones.”

Clive: What I meant there was that if fate forces you to be separated from your dog for whatever reason, then I think that the dog will recover from that in time. That’s what I was getting at there. I don’t think that dogs as they get older lose the capacity for affection or lose affection for the people they love.

Let me back up. Maybe I can explain myself a bit better. I’ve sometimes been accused of anthropomorphism when I argue that dogs love people. Anthropomorphism is a tendency to give animals human qualities. But I don’t think that saying that our dogs love us is a case of anthropomorphism because I recognize that the way that dogs love people is not exactly the same as the way people love. It’s similar enough that we can share the relationship, but it has its differences.  One thing I think, and this isn’t based on scientific studies, it’s just everyday observation, but I think it’s the case that dogs can form new loving relationships but can also move on from loving relationships if they become separated, more easily than people can. If you think of a child living in a human family, if a child loses a parent, that’s a catastrophic event in life that it takes a human being years to recover from, years. Whereas if our dogs lose us, they are upset, but it doesn’t seem as though they’re upset for more than a couple of  months. It seems like they can recover from that loss more easily than we can.

And indeed my own dog wasn’t a puppy when we got her. She was already 14 months old when she became part of our family. And yet if you were to come and visit now, you would never for a moment guess that she hadn’t always been with me. It’s very obvious how much she cares about me and my wife and my son. So dogs can much more easily move into new relationships, which is a great thing because otherwise what would we do with adult dogs who’ve lost their original human family? It would really be a problem. It would be difficult to go to an animal shelter and adopt a dog that’s already an adult, if it were the case that dogs grieve like people do and take years to recover from losing beloved family members. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that dogs get tired of the people they live with and love, no. All I’m saying is that I think if a dog is forced to move on to a new human being that they can more readily do that than we would expect to see in our own species.

Zazie: I really enjoyed reading about your research on shelter dogs, some of it with Lisa Gunter. What practical things have you found that shelters can implement to help dogs in their care?

Clive: One thing shelters can do is stop wasting their time trying to guess what breed the dogs they have belong to. It turns out that people are absolutely hopeless at guessing what breed mixed-breed dogs are, and as you know here in the US the vast majority of shelter dogs are mixed breeds. We got 1000 DNA tests and we compared the shelter staff assessment of what breed the dogs they had to what the DNA said and it turned out that people are completely hopeless at it.  And adopters don’t need to know, because it’s really not the case that knowing the breeds that go into a mixed breed dog tells you anything useful about the personality of the dog you’re talking about. Each dog is an individual. Even within breeds dogs differ considerably from dog to dog. Even cloned dogs. I talk in the book Dog Is Love about cloned dogs, and I visited with a guy who had cloned his dog and had two clones and they were completely chalk and cheese in their personalities. So one thing is when you’re running a shelter or visiting a shelter to get a dog, stop worrying about what breed you think this dog might be. It’s not telling you anything useful, you’re not buying a car, it’s not like the Honda is going to have a different ride from the Toyota or whatever. Dogs are individuals. Give yourself a chance to get to know the individuals.

One thing that I believe is very constructive and very useful is a lot of shelters nowadays encourage people to foster dogs, to take dogs home just for a weekend or a week. That’s better for the dog. The dogs are more relaxed, they have a better existence when they’re staying in a human home, their behaviour improves. A lot of dogs, when stuck in kennels their behaviour becomes problematic. A lot of that cures itself if the dog is given the opportunity to stay in a home for a while. And then while it’s in the home it has a better chance of getting adopted because it’s out there in the community. You can even put little vests on the dog saying ‘Hey, if you like me, I could be yours’, that kind of thing. So fostering is a really positive thing. We’re doing a big study for Maddies Fund at the moment. We’ve already done studies showing that fostering is definitely a benefit and now we’re looking at helping shelters to implement more fostering programs, and other ways of helping dogs behave better in shelters.

"Dogs have a truly remarkable, really quite exaggerated, capacity to form strong emotional connections."

In one study I did some time ago with Sasha Protopopova, we just looked at the benefits of having people go around the shelter throwing in treats to the dogs. It turns out that if the dogs come to expect that a stranger walking around the shelter might throw them a treat, that tends to lead to a whole set of better patterns of behaviour than the kind of thing that dogs often do in kennels when they might just bark at people, they might hide at the back of the kennel or whatever. It’s a very, very simple intervention, doesn’t require any sort of special training. Just have some treats available and encourage people to give them to the dogs, and the animal’s behaviour improves.

So there’s a whole bunch of things. I’m always concerned to find ways of helping dogs in shelters that are easily deployed. Sometimes I worry, because I spend a lot of time talking to expert dog trainers and people who really know what they’re doing, and sometimes I worry that we tend to easily come up with solutions that are too difficult for a typical shelter to implement. There are wonderful shelters around the country, but there are a lot of shelters that just don’t have the resources to bring in experts and we need to help the dogs in those kinds of shelters, which is the larger number of dogs across the country, by coming up with solutions that are really simple, that cost as little as possible to implement. And yet not spending time trying to guess what breeds the dogs are, doesn’t cost anything, it’s not doing something. Fostering doesn’t need to cost a shelter money, and throwing in treats is also a very low cost solution. So we’re always on the lookout for those kinds of low-cost, low-effort solutions to help the poor dogs. It’s not their fault that they ended up in these places.

Zazie: For you, was the realization that what’s special about dogs is love, not intelligence, a gradual thing or was it an ‘aha’ moment?

Clive: Can something be both at the same time?! I had little bits of ‘aha’ and then sort of pulling myself back and going “No, that can’t be right. No, that’s just swishy, squishy. That’s just silly stuff, that’s not serious science.” So I’d have a little ‘aha’, but the ‘aha’ takes just a moment, and then I’d have like a month of “No that can’t be right.” But then I’d have another little ‘aha’, so I don’t know quite how to answer. It seems like a simple enough question but I can’t really give it a straight answer. I had a number of ‘aha’s, and then in between my ‘aha’s I had slow periods of weighing the evidence.

Zazie: There’s a really lovely section in the book about the heartbeat of the dog and their owner becoming aligned, which was based on some research by Mia Cobb and a colleague. How does this happen, and what does it tell us about the relationship between a dog and their person?

Clive: It’s one of the lines of research that really show us the affectionate bond between people and their dog. I think of it in my own mind as how the heartbeat becomes synchronized, how they’re just so attuned with each other. Their whole biological systems are just attuning with each other. Now that we’re talking about it I wonder why nobody’s actually done an experiment combining those things. I think of it as connected to the research out of Japan where they look at the hormone oxytocin. People call oxytocin the love hormone because it spikes when two individuals are together and looking into each other’s eyes, individuals who have a very strong emotional connection, like mothers and infants or newly-enamoured couples; not old married couples but newly-enamoured couples. When they look into each other’s eyes you see these spikes in the levels of oxytocin, on both sides – the dog and the person. So the heart rate and the heart beat synchronization and the oxytocin studies are very similar lines of research. They point us very much in the same direction. They show us how, at a quite deep biological level, people and their dogs show this biological connection to each other.

Zazie: For those of us who live with pet dogs, what are the implications of dogs’ capacity for love in terms of how we care for them?

Clive: This is something I feel very strongly about. Most of the people I talk to never mean to be cruel to their dogs. We don’t intend to be cruel. We avoid punishing our dog, we avoid situations that cause pain for our dogs. But what I think we overlook is that we love our dogs precisely because they are such sociable beings and they want to be with us. We love them for that, and yet too many of us leave our dogs alone for too long. We take it for granted that a dog can just be left and it’ll be okay. This causes real distress to dogs. The most common behavioural problem that people seek help for is what we call separation anxiety. It’s not that there’s something wrong with the dog, it’s that there’s something wrong with the condition that we’re holding the dog under. We really shouldn’t be leaving our dogs alone for many, many hours a day. In Sweden it’s against the law to leave your dog alone for more than 4 hours a day. I don’t know that that’s entirely practical, but of course many people do have to work all day long and cannot get home in the middle of the day. So first of all we need to think about, does my life really have space for a dog? And secondly, if I cannot get home or somebody in the family cannot get home during the day, there are alternatives. You could engage a dog walker perhaps, a friend or neighbour who can pop round and spend some time with your dog, or a well-run dog daycare. That can also provide your dog with the social companionship that they essentially need to have satisfying and psychologically complete lives. It pains me how people think of their dog the same way they think of the other clever things they have around the house. The dog is a living being and a highly, highly social living being that needs to have company or else it’s going to be in psychological distress.

Zazie: Thank you for a brilliant interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Clive: Oh, just be with your dog, people! Don’t leave your poor dog alone. It’s funny we should end on that note. I really feel that very strongly. My dog doesn’t need me to talk to her or play with her all the time, but she wants to know where I am and be able to just touch base with me from time to time. I feel that so strongly.

Thank you to Prof. Clive Wynne for the interview, and to the book club members who asked questions.

Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You is available in all good bookstores. You can follow Wynne on Twitter and via the Canine Science Collaboratory page on Facebook. And find more interviews with authors of animal books here.

CLIVE D.L. WYNNE, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. Previously, he founded the Canine Cognition and Behavior Laboratory at the University of Florida, the first lab of its kind in the United States. A native of the United Kingdom, Wynne has lived and worked in Germany and Australia as well as the United States and gives frequent talks to audiences around the world. The author of several previous academic books and of more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that count among the most highly cited studies on dog psychology, he has also published pieces in Psychology Today, New Scientist, and the New York Times, and has appeared in several television documentaries about dog science on National Geographic Explorer, PBS, and the BBC. His latest book, Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September. He lives in Tempe, Arizona.

This interview has been very lightly edited for length.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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