When it comes to dogs, we like to project a saviour complex on to them. That is creatively well-documented of course – Lassie, anyone? But we also can’t help ourselves when it comes to real-life tales of incredible dog bravery. Most recently, it was when a woman who was attacked by a cougar while out hiking in California was saved by her “amazing and loyal” Belgian malinois, Eva. The story made headlines around the world, but drill down a little and you’ll discover that the dog, which weighs around 25kg, hit the cougar but was very quickly outclassed by the giant cat. The woman, 24-year-old Erin Wilson, went at the cougar with rocks, a pipe, a tyre iron from her vehicle, her fists, and finally some pepper spray and the help of a passing stranger, in order to save the dog, which had been dragged off the trail she was walking on by said cougar. Can we really say that the dog saved her?
Over the years, we’ve heard of dogs saving people from muggings, fires and bear attacks, and even alerting new parents to very ill babies. In February, an 81-year-old man whose electric wheelchair had lost traction sped into a lake but was saved by his dog (the dog merely barked at some passersby, whom one would hope would have spotted a drowning man, however). None of these are more powerful than the dogs and cancer stories. In the late 90s, a Pekinese reportedly discovered its owner’s breast cancer by barking incessantly at it. It seems this was neither era- nor breed-specific, and has been repeated since by a cavalier king charles that sniffed and pawed at its owner’s breasts, a labrador that also sniffed out cancer, and a border collie that sensed its owner’s cancer while also having breast cancer itself. If you read too many of these stories, you’d walk away with the impression that all dogs were consultant oncologists.
When Covid hit, canine-detection was explored by a number of nations, and a study in France found a 95% success rate and a separate Finnish study, and a UK study, about the same. When you consider that they can offer emotional support and find drugs, dogs really are like the Swiss army penknife of public servants.
All of this really is an answer to the bigger question of: do our dogs love us? As in, do they love us the way we love them? Old-fashioned dog behaviourism has said not, pointing to the fact that they can be rehomed and recover almost immediately. More recent research, however, from evolutionary psychologists Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, particularly (in The Genius of Dogs and Survival of the Friendliest), shows that dogs respond positively to positive emotions. They have empathy, they can laugh, and make one another laugh (their play-panting, when analysed on a sonograph, corresponds to decreased stress levels and institutes play in other dogs).
In his book Wonderdog, the zoologist Jules Howard writes that dogs, unlike wolves, make eye contact with humans. They have a specific facial muscle group for those “puppy dog eyes”, and after sustained human contact, according to one study, their oxytocin levels soared. The spike was much more pronounced in their owners, though.
This directs us to the more important thrust of Howard’s book, which is that the question isn’t how well dogs love us; it’s how we are changed by loving dogs. The effort of stretching our conscious empathy to encompass another species makes us love one another better, as well as re-situating us within nature as participants rather than overlords. Without this shift, meaningful environmentalism will always be out of reach.
Besides which, every fine quality we perceive in the dog, we mirror ourselves, which is how we might find ourselves trying to punch a cougar, rather than run away. The Californian woman was unharmed. Eva is on the mend. And us believing that Eva really did save her, and that we live in this world as part of a much bigger and wider ecosystem, has huge consequences for the planet.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist