A few months back I was swimming in the sea, and a dog came into the water and started swimming there too, and seeing it made me smile. I thought of an idea that I’d heard about increasing happiness: ‘turn towards the things that bring you joy and let nice things sink in for at least twenty seconds’, so I stopped and watched it swimming. It wasn’t going anywhere; it was just swimming around in circles with its head just above the water and its legs under the water paddling away. It was a simple yet incredibly enjoyable scene.
Maybe I’m biased. I grew up with dogs, and getting my first dog when I was 10 is one of my best childhood memories, but many people around the world would have experienced a similar amount of enjoyment from simply watching a dog swimming like this. So why do we have such a connection to and fondness for these animals, and how did it come to be this way?
Dogs came from wolves, and it seems that the domestication of dogs happened around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. According to Stephen Kotler, dog-rescuer and author of A Small Furry Prayer, there are two theories about how this might have happened. The first idea is that humans domesticated wolves: people stole wolf cubs and raised them as pets. They kept the friendlier, cuter ones and either killed the wilder ones or sent them back out into the wild. As they continued to do this (selective breeding), the friendlier ones bred and over time their offspring became friendlier and friendlier.
The second theory is that wolves domesticated themselves. They came to eat our rubbish that was left outside caves, and the wolves that felt more comfortable being close to humans got more food, had more cubs, and their friendly genes got passed on. Then the cuter, friendlier cubs were brought inside by humans, and the same selective breeding process slowly turned the wolves into the friendly, loyal pets that we have today.
Either way, over time, these wolves became more and more a part of our lives and we grew closer and closer to them. They protected us from danger, hunted with us, and kept us warm by sleeping next to us on cold nights. Kotler argues that we humans may have evolved to be closer to and friendlier with wolves, too. Humans who felt a deeper connection to the wolves were more likely to survive and therefore had an evolutionary advantage, he says, so ‘evolution began selecting for traits that made us better wolf lovers’.
It’s estimated that there are around 470 million pet dogs around the world now1, and, as any dog owner knows, there are obvious reasons for this level of popularity: dogs are friendly and affectionate – how nice is it to come home and be greeted by your dog wagging its tail excitedly? But, according to life coach and meditation teacher Karen Osten, we humans get many other benefits from our canine friends, some of which might be surprising.
Dogs bring us comfort and help to relieve stress, Osten says. They can also help us to have a sense of purpose, as caring for another (person or animal) is one of the most purposeful things we can do. And because dogs tend to be fully present in the moment, when they’re playing or lying in the sun, for example, this can motivate us to be more present and enjoy the moments too. Perhaps this was why watching the dog swimming around in the sea was so enjoyable.
Stephen Kotler’s dog rescue project is a sanctuary in New Mexico, and he has taken the connection to dogs a step further than most people. His twelve dogs sleep on his bed, and he describes how over time he became closer and more connected to them, and ended up feeling like part of the pack. In his book, he adds that being close to dogs can have physical health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart attacks, and he even suggests that spending time with dogs might be more effective at reducing stress and loneliness than spending time with other people.
Kotler adds that another reason dogs bring us so much happiness is connected to playing, as dogs and humans are among the few species that enjoy playing as adults. But when he takes his dogs out for exercise to a local canyon, he experiences something that is beyond just the enjoyment of play. He describes how when he runs with them and jumps from rock to rock, he feels connected to something bigger than an individual self, like he merges with the pack as they run together, and how he jumps further than he ever could if he stopped and thought about it.
As good as being part of a pack sounds, twelve dogs would be too much for me, as it would for most people. For now, I’ll try to remember to stop and watch when I see one playing.