Dogs in Love

“How did you know that your dogs were in love?”

My husband John had just finished demonstrating some sheep-herding techniques to some cub scouts with our border collie, Cap, and after returning him to his kennel, had brought out Abbie for her turn with the sheep. To explain to these young boys who Abbie was in our six border-collie pack, I said that Abbie was Cap’s wife. They were the parents of our ten-month old puppy, Spot. So, Jason’s innocent and curious mind conjured that if they were husband and wife, they must have been in love. But how do dogs show that they have this emotion?  

I must admit I was stymied by this query from an eight-year old. One of the mothers accompanying the troop, stepped in and said, “You just know, don’t you?” Just then John began to explain what he was doing in giving Abbie some commands, first verbal and then using a whistle. All attention was now focused on the herding demonstration. 

Later after the boys and the accompanying adults left, I reflected on this incident and wished that I would have had the presence of mind to respond to Jason’s question. Do dogs really have emotions that could be identified as love or affection for one another? Or is the mating of a female and male only a physical attraction, explained by strong hormonal signals? That night, my husband laughed when I told him Jason’s question and said his response would probably have been, “Well, if you could have seen how fast they mated in the barn that day…” 

But, seriously, we both have noticed other signs of affection between these two dogs, outside of Abbie’s menstrual cycle. When they are first let out of their kennels to take a walk, Abbie runs over to Cap and teases him with little nips on his neck. It’s clear that Cap is annoyed by this attention and tries to either get away or come to one of us for protection. This behavior appears playful, but to me it also communicates a desire that Abbie has to be noticed, even if a little aggressively. 

When the two dogs are in a more relaxed state, sitting next to each other, Abbie will lean over to Cap and nuzzle him and lick his face which Cap receives stoically. While I don’t like to compare or equate animal behavior to humans, it almost seems like Cap is playing the conventional male who is embarrassed by a public show of affection, while Abbie just lets her emotions rule her behavior. She really likes her mate! 

In our years of raising and training border collies, I have seen this kind of doggie “love” behavior before, though not as consistent as with Abbie and Cap. Perhaps, as is true for other species, there are unique relationships that seem to point in the direction of selective commitments of loyalty and affection to another, often within their species, but even across species. 

Abbie and Cap give us a reminder of the strong bonds that can develop into unconditional love that is lasting and genuine. I think, for example, of the U-tube clip of a crow that had adopted a kitten, accompanying it everywhere – feeding it, protecting it, and even playing with it. When a vet came to observe these animals in the backyard of an elderly couple, she surmised that the bird had chanced on an abandoned kitten and decided to care for it as its own, not realizing the cat was a natural predator of birds. 

Then there was the touching video of two elderly female elephants, united in an animal sanctuary after decades of separation as well as mistreatment. Initially, they were kept in separate, adjacent pens for observation, but when they each tried to touch the other with their trunks, their keepers surmised they were ready to be together. Taken out into an open field, the camera caught them walking side by side, entwining their trunks as they strolled along. 

We can learn much from animals about forming deep, loving bonds that are lasting. 

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