Do our dogs love us back?

Calgary Herald, June 6, 2016: I miss him about 100 times a day. I come around the corner and expect to see him sprawled out on the floor. I glance in the rear-view mirror and miss his bearlike head blocking the view. I load the dishwasher and expect his thorough first rinse. A piece of cheese falls from the counter and it takes me a second to remember I have to pick it up.

About six weeks ago, we had to put down our beloved big beast of a dog.

Family and friends gathered around Rocky on the kitchen floor to say goodbye.  We told our favourite stories, fed him hotdogs — the whole pack — and some of us bawled our heads off more than others.  My dog’s giant golden head lay in my lap as a lovely veterinarian did what had to be done.

In the days that followed, the cucumber slices on my puffy eyes did not help, but the nice notes did. There were a few texts from people whose numbers I don’t know — thoughtful mysteries. Neighbours brought over flowers and wine.

I suspect the mailman has noticed my dog is gone. He’s likely not that broken up. Even at the end, my old mutt would drag his massive back end off the floor to try to get through the (locked) screen door to take down the mailman. When Rocky was younger and could have done some damage I had to keep the front door closed until after the mail arrived. I bet the mailman is relieved but maybe a little sad for me that Rocky isn’t lying there taking up the entire front hall anymore.

People are kind when your dog dies.

Whether you’re hardcore non-pet, horribly allergic or a postal worker, you know how much dog people love their fur-kids. There are about 122,000 licensed dogs in Calgary and a good many more running around unaware and unconcerned that they’re rebels. That’s an awful lot of doggy love.

Working from home, I likely spent more time with Rocky over the last 10-plus years than pretty much any other mammal. We were like an old married couple. Our daily routines were built around each other, we knew the other’s habits — good and bad — and we drove each other crazy.  I loved that dog like crazy too.

But did he love me back? Are dogs capable of that kind of thing? Sure, they’re happy to see us when we walk through the door because we feed and water them and take them on walks.  They run to us in the park sporting big doggy grins because they know we’ll take care of them. After all, our dogs are the ones that veered away from the wolf pack for a liver treat and a belly rub.

“Dogs are special,” says author and scientist Gregory Berns. “They are the first domesticated animals. They have been with humans since humans have been humans.”  Berns too, wondered whether his dogs loved him. And because he’s a neuroscientist, he built special MRI equipment to examine dogs’ brains as they took in different canine and human scents. When the dogs smelled their “familiar human” the reward centre part of their brains lit up. Berns concluded that dogs have strong feelings for their humans.

“You don’t need an MRI to know that dogs (and other animals) experience emotions,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “Something as basic as the desire to approach stuff that is good for well-being, or to avoid things that are dangerous, is necessary to all animal life. (Charles) Darwin called these animal processes emotions, and so would I.”

In Rocky’s last months he started lying butt up against my desk so I’d have to Harry Houdini my way over him to go to the loo. People kept telling me I’d know when it was time. “He’ll give you a sign,” they said and I was terrified I’d get it wrong.

Was it when he collapsed on a walk and just sat calmly for a while — one long paw resting elegantly over the other. Or when he fell in the hall one night and I cuddled next to him on the hardwood for half an hour until he could get up. In the end, it was unmistakable.  And even though I’d been expecting it for months, it all happened really fast. One afternoon Rocky simply couldn’t get up anymore. I called the vet.

It took me a few days before I could bequeath his big bag of kibble to Lucy, the Labrador across the street. It was a week before I could clean up the last few presents he left in the back yard.  And it might be years before I remember, as the bit of cheese falls to the floor, that’s he not here anymore to gobble it up.

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