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Why People Love Their Pets

Social science has now explained, as if it needed explaining, why people love their pets.

John Archer, a psychologist at the , has been puzzling for some time over why people love their pets. In evolutionary terms, love for dogs and other pets “poses a problem,” he writes. Being attached to animals is not, strictly speaking, necessary for human health and welfare. True, studies show that people with pets live a bit longer and have better blood pressure than benighted nonowners, but in the literal sense, we don’t really need all those dogs and cats to survive.

Of course, we don’t need ice cream, coffee, sports, music, or a whole host of other pleasurable things to survive, either.

Archer suggests, “consider the possibility that pets are, in evolutionary terms, manipulating human responses, that they are the equivalent of social parasites.” Social parasites inject themselves into the social systems of other species and thrive there. Dogs are masters at that. They show a range of emotions—love, anxiety, curiosity—and thus trick us into thinking they possess the full range of human feelings.

They dance with joy when we come home, put their heads on our knees and stare longingly into our eyes. Ah, we think, at last, the love and loyalty we so richly deserve and so rarely receive. Over thousands of years of living with humans, dogs have become wily and transfixing sidekicks with the particularly appealing characteristic of being unable to speak. We are therefore free to fill in the blanks with what we need to hear. (What the dog may really be telling us, much of the time, is, “Feed me.”)

Plus, they’re cute and furry.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. MichaelB says:

    Cats can be mighty useful too, as anyone who has ever had a mouse problem can attest…

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  2. Steve Verdon says:

    The arguement is questionable. When you look at many breeds of dogs you seen working dogs like the Rottweiler, the American Pit Bull Terrier, the German Shepherd, and so forth. Many of these dogs actually have jobs. In the cast of my Rottie she has assigned herself guarding duties. She sleeps in each room during the night and any strange noises will rouse her into a barking/hackles up/ready-to-go status. In large part it is due to her breeding. And to be honest, that is one of the reasons why I got her. Rotts were also used by farmers in Germany to take their produce to market, and on the way home the money was tied around the 100+ pound dog’s collar.

    The American Pit Bull Terrier was initially a “catch dog” for butchers several hundred years ago. They needed a dog that was tenacious and disregarded pain (dogmen call this gameness) that could hold a bull. Since those days the APBT has been used in a variety of ways. A pit bull will take down a fox or coyote with ease. Even a wolf would most likely come out on the short end of the stick against a pit bull. The dogs are also incredibly strong and fair well in weight pull competitions today, so a farmer in the past could use the dog to pull loads in a small cart that might not be suitable for a horse. And it is rare when an APBT wont defend its owner with the same level of gameness that it’s ancestors had in going after bulls or other dogs.

    Then there other dogs like retrievers and pointers who are useful when hunting. Dogs also have superior hearing and sense of smell, so using them for protecting livestock is also a benefit.

    The idea that several thousand years ago humans took the domesticated dogs precusor, domesticated it, trained it, simply so we could have them dance when we came home from hunting and gathering is just…dumb. It doesn’t even pass the giggle test. Dogs didn’t inject themselves into our social system, we brought them in. That they have also turned out to be good companions as well as useful at work is just icing on the cake, IMO.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    Steve,

    Fair points all. Ditto cats, which were great at killing disease bearing rodents.

    Still, most of us now keep pets primarily for companionship, not utilitarian reasons.

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  4. Steve Verdon says:

    I agree, but the idea that they inserted themselves just doesn’t wash with me.

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  5. Gollum says:

    The idea that several thousand years ago humans took the domesticated dogs precusor, domesticated it, trained it, simply so we could have them dance when we came home from hunting and gathering is just…dumb.

    Steve – I mostly agree with you, but also point out that humans do have a tendency to attach themselves to things that mimic human behavior to a point and let the human fill in the rest. Tamagatchis, for example. Or pet birds, say, which outside of hawks and falcons don’t and didn’t ever serve any real useful purpose. I don’t think you can discount that entirely when considering the sum of our relationships with animals.

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  6. Bandit says:

    No matter how shitty my day is, whether I’m getting along with the wife or not, whether I did a good job at work or not or came home loaded or not the dogs are always happy to see me.

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  7. Steve Verdon says:

    Gollum,

    I think most people started a relationship with animals for utilitarian purposes. We domesticated various animals for food sources or to work. Latter, when we reached a level of advancement where the working/food source nautre of animals was not as common, other attachments began to form. This is an entirely different reason for why people, at least initially, took in animals. It wasn’t evolutionary trickery, but more just evolutionary common sense. A dog has lots of uses, especially in a much more primative society. That man breed in intelligence and possibly the social nature of dogs maybe from a common sense approach as well. After all a dog too dumb not to realize it is supposed to protect the sheep vs. eating them is less valuable than one that does learn the difference. Same thing with other breeds of dogs and human aggression. In some breeds human aggression was bred out through selective breeding. This also made the dogs very friendly to humans. Unintended consequence? Maybe, but the idea that it is evlutionary trickery strikes me as the wrong way to think about it.

    As such, I think the premise of the hypothesis is flawed. The conclusion may still be correct, but I’m not so sure. I’m far from convinced it is because dogs are merely “social parasites”.

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  8. lunacy says:

    Well, I know I need my sweet laborador retriever. Otherwise, all those tennis balls I toss out in the yard would be lost forever! And there would be too much room at the foot of my bed, and my feet would be cold at night.

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  9. Christopher says:

    seriously, this is a topic?

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  10. tylerh says:

    methinks the good professor needs to spend a day hunting (or sheepherding) with a good dog….

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