Dogs: The science behind their success

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Canine psychologist Clive Wynne with his dog Xephos. Photo by Sam Wynne.

Over the last few decades, the science behind dog behavior and training has exploded. There is now a whole new field of academia and practice centered around researching dog intelligence, biology, and skill set. 

Working dogs are more than just hunters and herders — they can be used in disease detection, wildlife protection, conservation, and pest control. And if you’re a dog owner, you now have access to an array of psychologists, trainers, and books to help raise happy and well-behaved dogs.  

Whether you own a dog or simply enjoy walking or petting other folks’ canine companions, you know firsthand the sense of joy, affection, and love that we get from our four-legged friends. That special bond between humans and dogs can be traced back thousands of years — as “man’s best friend,” dogs are completely unique in their ability to offer loyalty and companionship. 

So just what do we know about a dog’s capacity for love? Is their devotion and warmth like our own, or are they just responses to affection and treats? 

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Author and canine researcher Clive Wynne says that it’s dogs’ ability to form relationships with other species, rather than their intelligence and skills, that make them truly remarkable. Wynne, a psychologist and founder of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University and author of “Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You,” says the latest scientific research forces us to rethink our basic assumptions about dogs’ evolution and psychology. 

Book cover "Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You” Clive Wynne with his dog Xephos. Photo by Sam Wynne.

Jonathan Bastian talks with Wynne about the latest science and how Wynne’s own relationship with his dog Xephos finally convinced him of the secret to dogs’ success in the human world. 

“She is so unbelievably loving,” he says. “It just shines out of every pore in her little body, how much she loves us and how very quickly she loves new people who come to the door.”

Wynne is a fan of mutts and fostering a dog before adopting. He says that purebred dogs may seem appealing, but people need to recognize that the “intensive inbreeding that led us to a situation where we can guarantee the shape, form, and color of a dog has had very negative impacts … we should be seeking out healthy, happy dogs, not going crazy about the shape and so on when that obviously just causes suffering.” 

Later, Wynne expands on how the role of dogs has shifted over time. 

“Over the thousands of years that we lived with dogs, dogs have found so many different things they can do for us. Now, in the 21st century, their main job is just to protect us from loneliness,” he says. “We live in a period where more people live on their own than have ever done before in human history. We don't need a dog to go hunting, we don't need a dog to guard for us, we don't need a dog to herd sheep. We just need a dog to keep us company, and my goodness, they're good at it!”




Andrea Brody