My dog died. Three of the saddest words in the English language—for dog people, at least. For two days I took to my bed and cried. How would I survive without my constant and affectionate buddy, my lovable Cairn Terrier, Zoro? He had seen me through two battles with cancer, the aftermath of my mom’s death, a move, and a home foreclosure. He was indomitable, funny, playful, and unconditionally devoted. The present felt unendurable, and the future bleak. Fortunately, my partner gave me Steven Kotler's A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life. Although my head declared it counterintuitive to read about someone else’s joy in dog companionship, my heart was drawn to the title and to the photo on the cover of a large-eyed, flop-eared, Dachshund Chihuahua mix. Certainly Zoro had been an answer to prayer, finding him just after my mother and my first Cairn Terrier, Murphy, had died within weeks of one another. Certainly, too, I needed prayer, now. A furry one would be best.
What I found inside the cover was one of the most moving, mesmerizing, and healing books I’ve ever read. Not only did Kotler perfectly describe my grief, he described the human–canine bond from every possible angle: from co-evolutionary to psychic, from corporeal connection to Zen, from psychological comfort to measurable physical health benefit. These are things most dog lovers “know” instinctively; but in his need to understand his own grief and personal transformation in the company of dogs, Kotler catalogued scientific, social, and spiritual proof of the ancient and evolutionary bond.
Wolves first approached human camps for scraps of food. They consumed our garbage and gave warning of intruders. Slowly we learned to trust each other then to hunt together, and then to leave our human children and elderly in the safety of wolf guardians. Both species benefited and evolved accordingly. Humans didn’t simply evolve to use wolves; we evolved wolf traits—loyalty, cooperation and devotion to one’s immediate family, as well as a larger social group—traits not prevalent in primates.
“A bigger pack is a stronger pack, but only if that pack is united toward a common goal. This type of unity requires more patience, wider loyalty, and better cooperation than existed in our primate past, so once we teamed up with wolves, evolution began selecting for these traits as well. What all this really means is that what we call our ‘humanity’ is actually a series of traits borrowed from wolves.” * * *
“The wolves taught us not only to expand the boundaries of community beyond kin—a lesson chimpanzees have yet to learn—but also taught us to expand beyond kind. And this may be the reason we still need ephemeral phrases such as ‘kindness of heart’ to describe the bond between humans and dogs—because it was dogs who taught us how to bond like that in the first place.” * * *
“Humans evolved to share their lives with dogs, and our brains are no longer cut out to do this work alone. Scientists have been presenting this health data as if canine companionship were an evolutionary rarity instead of a near constant. [Studies show dog companionship reduces stress, reduces the chance of heart attack, lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, improves child development, and improves survival from critical illness.] Invert the equation and there’s nothing surprising about these finding[s]. We have evolved to cohabit with dogs. Their presence is part of what makes us feel safe in the world. Remove them from our lives … and there’s bound to be consequences.”
[Above, Zoro conquering the waves at the beach.]books about dogs, and a gem of a film, Peter Sellers' The Optimists, adapted from the Anthony Simmons novel, The Optimists of Nine Elms. In one of his most endearing roles, Sellers plays Sam, an aging London music hall performer turned theatre district (or football stadium) busker. His equally senior but infinitely loveable rag-mop dog, Bella, dances with a tin cup on her collar, to collect the change and adoration of people waiting in line for tickets.
Linda Thornburg is a writer and filmmaker.