I often hear people speak of the unconditional love they feel from their companion animals. This surprises me. I do believe that dogs feel what we feel toward family members. Science has taken a big step toward measuring it. Dogs make oxytocin in response to petting from humans they like and people make the same hormone, a feel good chemical, when we hang out with our pets…..and other loved ones. But I think it’s a stretch to call it unconditional.
It’s true that the abused animals I have met while investigating animal cruelty were loyal to their owners in some ways, this is just like humans suffering from Stockholm Sydrome; a need to appease the captor for survival. But taking those few cases out of the equation, how many people complain about dogs who run off or repeatedly do things we don’t want them to do? Perhaps they love us but don’t understand the rules. Perhaps we have been lax in training. But I think it’s fair and unpopular to point out, this could emanate from unconditional love.
There are conditions in the human-canine relationship called love. First of all, is your dog free to leave? If you close the door, shut the gate and use a leash (as you are required to do by law) you may not actually know if your dog would leave, given the chance. The next question is, if food and shelter were easily accessible, would he come back? It’s too risky to find out because of traffic and diseases and the risk of getting lost permanently. If a dog ever bites, does it mean he unloved you? What about tough love? These are just arguments to test on the unconditional love theory.
I truly enjoy the rapport and friendship I have with my canine family members but I don’t mislead myself that our relationship is unconditional on either side. I expect to pay the bills, keep them safe, teach them house rules and entertain them. They have come to expect this from me. They also grow to trust me with time not to be unpredictable or change the rules. They understand I’ll be patient and explain what I can. They know there will some things to do that are uncomfortable (nail trims and the dreaded bath every once in awhile) and the best I can come up with to describe their acquiescence is that we are friends. They take the good with the bad.
The unconditional love expectation is just not realistic. My dogs are not stupid enough to offer it up to a stranger and I don’t believe they’ve offered it to me, either. I am pretty confident that they would stay if they were free to go. Except for one who would leave but return later. I just don’t equate that with love. This is their house, territory, family. They stay or return because it’s where their routine is. I believe they like me and even love me but conditions will never be tested because I will never forget to feed them, fail to shelter them or act in a way that surprises or scares them. Even in an emergency, I will do my best not to create conditions that lead them to question what we have. There are conditions, as well there should be.