Pets are good for us: But not in the ways we think they are.
John Bradshaw and his colleagues had to invent a new word—and the new field of “anthrozoology”—to describe their work studying the interactions between animals and humans. In his new book, The Animals Among Us, Bradshaw now demolishes a few myths about the pets that increasingly crowd our homes. [Find out if your dog would eat you if you died.]
Speaking from his home in Southampton, England, Bradshaw explains why most scientists didn’t consider the bond between humans and their pets an important area of research; why women of the Awa-Gauja tribe in the Amazon breastfeed monkeys; and why having an animal in the house is so important, especially for kids whose world has increasingly been reduced to a smartphone screen. [Discover why your dog eats poop.]
One of the myths you question is that keeping pets is good for us. I think most pet owners know they are!
Initial research showed that people with pets survived longer after heart attacks than people without pets. The most likely explanation is that these were people who, other than having a heart attack, were in a better state of health than people who did not or could not have pets for a variety of reasons.
This has been borne out recently in studies by the Rand Corporation, which looked at large samples of people from California. They showed that pet keeping is practiced by people who can afford it, not just in financial terms but also in terms of lifestyle. People who are settled, have children, who live in a house rather than an apartment, and – to put it bluntly – are white have better health. But it’s not because of the pets. The pet is the consequence of the healthy life, not the cause of it.
Other assumptions you question are whether animals can feel embarrassment or guilt, and whether their minds are capable of deliberate planning. I think if you saw our Dalmatian’s face after he has been bad – or when he is carefully planning his escape from the yard – you might reconsider!
[Laughs] Yes, I can see that. People do interpret these behaviors as if they are intentional. The question is, what kinds of emotions do they feel? Alexandra Horowitz in New York showed that the guilty look is actually a sign of the dog’s very acute ability to read human body language.
Dogs put the guilty look on almost before the owner knows it’s time to get angry about something the dog has done. They almost seem to react as fast as our conscious minds can. As soon as you look at the dog, the dog is already looking guilty.
You make the assumption that the dog was looking guilty before you looked at it. But the science shows that the dog doesn’t start looking guilty until the moment the owner’s body language is visible to it. You don’t have to say anything. It can be just a slight stiffening in posture.
So, what kind of mental abilities do you need to feel guilt? In our human terms, guilt is quite sophisticated. You have to compare something you have done at some point in the past with some internal norm, which you have learned over the course of a long period of time. There’s no evidence that the canine mind can do that.
I am not saying that dogs are stupid. Their minds are very good at doing what they do. They can react more quickly to human body language than humans can. But we anthropomorphize, assuming they emotionalize identically to us, and that’s the mistake.
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