As I grew older, developing a more authoritarian role in the family and Max grew older, out of his rebellious phase, I had much less trouble walking him. When we lived in Acton, I took him to the dog park down the street. Once we reached the grass of the park I unhooked Max’s leash and his nose led him along the edge of the park. He ventured a few feet into the woods and then back out to me. I followed him. And when I overtook him as he dealt with a particularly curious smell, he followed me.
When we reached the pond where all the dogs were playing, Max tried to join in. He ran behind a dog for a few moments then looked back at me. I told him to go on and play, but he turned around and came back to the crowd of other dogs and owners. He sniffed other dogs and barked at them playing but rarely played himself.
He had gotten too old. He wanted to play but had lost the energy and assertiveness that comes from being a puppy. He wanted to be asked to play not to have to ask.
As he stood there watching the other dogs, he turned his head and looked to me.
"What’s up?" I asked him.
He trotted over to me and presented his back for scratching. I scratched then tried to get him to run or play or sniff. But he didn't want to.
"You want to go for a walk?" I asked him.
He looked at me then took off towards the path in the woods. When he got too far ahead, he stopped and turned his head.
"Come on!" he said.
At least I think he did.
I jogged to catch up with him, and, when I got close enough, he continued to the path.
We followed the cleared dirt path through the woods, Max straying into some of the rougher terrain to hunt down a smell or handle some business. Each time he strayed far away from me, Max looked back.
But why? Why did he keep looking back at me? Was this all a product of his attachment? Perhaps.
Many dog owners, myself included, have noticed another instance in which the dog looks at its owner. Max was always very picky about where he poohed. He needed good leaf coverage, I think as a cushion for his bum, and he never defecated anywhere other than the perimeter. Never in his own yard. Never in the middle of a field. Almost always in the woods.
And every time he poohed, he faced away from me but turned his head back. I always thought he was embarrassed and wanted to check if I was looking. So as he turned his head back towards me, I turned my head away so as to respect his privacy. But there may have been something else going on.
Dogs uniquely communicate with humans via eye gaze. In laboratory tasks in which dogs must find the location of hidden food, or solve an insoluble problem, they frequently make and exploit eye contact with humans. They look to their owners for behavioral cues. They communicate. So in looking at me at the dog park, I believe Max was talking to me - telling me he wanted to go for a walk and he wanted to go with me.
As for the pooh looks, dog behavioralists suggest several things could be going on. First and most instinctual, Max may have been looking back as a means of protection. The pooping position is very vulnerable for a dog, so Max may have looked at me to make sure I was protecting him.
The second and third possibilties are more biological. There is evidence of an oxytocin-mediated positive feedback loop, which originates with mutual gaze, between dogs and humans. Basically, Max looks at me and my oxytocin concentration increases, causing me to feel enhanced attachment to Max. I look back and Max’s oxytocin concentration increases and he feels greater attachment to me. And so on, and so on. As we look at one another, we bond and become synchronized. This is much like the bond of mother and child and it could lead Max to look back at me for reassurance while pooping. "Is this an okay place to go, Mom?" Or he could be expecting a reward for going. "Can I have a cookie now, Mom?"
Finally, it is possible that my teenage self was correct, and Max just wanted some privacy.
No matter the reason, it is clear that both walking looks and pooh looks illustrate the bond between human and dog.
Only a few decades ago, society and science alike addressed this human-dog bond very little. In the late 1970s, veterinarians were just beginning to offer specialized care to animals and pet owners were just beginning to push for more treatments. Today, however, pets are often viewed as additional members of the family.
But with that human-dog bond comes great distress upon its breaking. In decades following 1970, the emotional response to the loss of a pet gained much more traction in society. Counseling was offered to those who had suffered the loss of a pet, and researchers began conducting studies on and forming theories about the emotional response to pet loss. They talk about it as, quite simply, grief.
Most studies show that humans experience the loss of a pet in much the same way they experience the loss of a human. And there are several theories that describe the grief humans feel at the loss of a pet, most of which are applicable to human loss as well. For example, the well-know “5 stages of grief” - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - can be applied to the loss of a pet as well as the loss of a human.
No matter which, if any, of the theories about pet loss is correct, the fact that we experience grief in any such way is a testament to how deeply humans are bonded to dogs. We depend on their existence. We revel in their happines. We feel their pain. We break when they are gone.