Dr John Brad­shaw Katie Jarvis talks to the an­i­mal ex­pert about why we some­times ex­pect too much from our pets

We think of our pets as brave, loyal and hon­est (or duly ashamed); in fact, they’re pretty much fully fledged mem­bers of the fam­ily. Hon­orary hu­mans with four (or a va­ri­ety thereof) legs. But why do we do that? And are there hid­den con­se­quences to those a

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - WORDS: Katie Jarvis Š PHO­TOS: An­drew Hig­gins

So here are some sto­ries that tear me apart. Tears-stream­ing-down-face sto­ries. Heart-warm­ing, smi­ley, feel-good sto­ries. Sto­ries that Dr John Brad­shaw tells in his book, The An­i­mals Among Us.

There’s three-year-old Obi, a Ger­man Shep­herd, awarded an ‘an­i­mal OBE’ for his self­less brav­ery dur­ing the ter­ri­fy­ing Tot­ten­ham riots of sum­mer 2011. As gangs ram­paged through the streets, loot­ing and set­ting fire to shops, Obi the po­lice dog dodged petrol bombs and dense smoke in the line of duty; not even stop­ping when a brick, lobbed by a ri­oter, frac­tured his skull. For two fur­ther hours, blood pour­ing from his nose, Obi bat­tled on re­gard­less - and lived to pa­trol an­other day.

Or Tara, the tabby (yes, that’s cor­rect: a cat) who snatched a Los An­ge­les ‘Hero Dog’ award from un­der the noses of her ca­nine ri­vals. Her coura­geous act is im­mor­talised in a video show­ing her fear­lessly stop­ping a neigh­bour’s dog from at­tack­ing her fam­ily’s four-year-old as he rode his bike around the gar­den. (The Youtube footage notched up a record-break­ing 20 mil­lion views in five days.)

And who hasn’t heard of Greyfri­ars Bobby, the Skye ter­rier of 19th cen­tury Ed­in­burgh, who stead­fastly guarded the grave of his for­mer mas­ter for 14 re­lent­less years. A statue to this faith­ful fel­low can still be seen to this day… But hang on a dog­gone mo!

Can other an­i­mals re­ally be brave, fam­ily-minded and loyal in the same way that peo­ple can?

Was Tara the Tabby con­sciously and in­ten­tion­ally sav­ing a young ‘rel­a­tive’?

Did Greyfri­ars Bobby, the sor­row­ing ter­rier, even ex­ist?

Or, as John Brad­shaw ap­po­sitely puts it, “If Obi had un­der­stood that he had al­ter­na­tives – ei­ther grab a ri­oter and have his skull staved in with a brick or bark fe­ro­ciously from around the edge of his han­dler’s riot shield – which do you think he’d have cho­sen?”

The an­swer, by the way, isn’t dis­parag­ing to these do­mes­tic an­i­mals, our loyal friends for the past 50,000-or-so years.

No. In­stead, it says some­thing re­mark­able about

Around 30,000 years ago – give or take a mil­len­nium or three – a man sat down to carve an ob­ject out of ivory. This un­known man – or per­haps we should say ‘artist’ – be­gan, with in­fin­itely del­i­cate strokes, to tease out the head of a lion: a small-eared, huge-jawed,

strong-necked, pow­er­ful lion.

But it’s what the artist did next that in­ter­ests aca­demics. For in­stead of this lion be­com­ing a mas­sive-pawed quadruped, the totem re­solves into some­thing rather dif­fer­ent: the body of a man. Half man, half lion.

In­deed, this lion/man stat­uette, dis­cov­ered in what is now south­ern Ger­many, is a key to un­der­stand­ing a phe­nom­e­non so in­grained in us to­day that we hardly ques­tion it.

A phe­nom­e­non that – just like that piece of worked ivory – blurs where an­i­mals end and we be­gin. A phe­nom­e­non where (to put it in sim­ple terms) we write the fam­ily’s names in Christ­mas cards… and then in­clude the pets. Where we pour out our most in­ti­mate prob­lems to the dog, con­vinced his ex­pres­sion means he un­der­stands.

Where we apol­o­gise to the cat for ac­ci­den­tally step­ping on a paw.

Where we be­lieve that a Skye ter­rier could mourn a hu­man over 14 long years. (*Spoiler* the story was prob­a­bly in­vented by the ceme­tery cu­ra­tor and a lo­cal hostelry-owner in a bid to at­tract more tourists). (Sorry.)

Dr John Brad­shaw – an aca­demic at Bris­tol Univer­sity’s ve­teri­nary school – thinks there are very good rea­sons why we em­ploy this sort of an­thro­po­mor­phism; this view­ing of an­i­mals as if they were hu­man.

And the an­swer lies way back in our past.

“It’s worked very well for the hu­man race for tens of thou­sands of years,” he points out, prag­mat­i­cally. “It worked well prob­a­bly go­ing back 100,000 years, when an­i­mals were just food. We de­vel­oped a fa­cil­ity for learn­ing about an­i­mals: how they be­have and, there­fore, how best to hunt them.”

And that’s the point. Way back in time – long be­fore in­ter­net pho­tos of Cats That Look Like Hitler or sneez­ing-panda videos – an­i­mals were sim­ply food; a re­source like fruit or wa­ter. We needed to eat them to sur­vive.

But how do you hunt suc­cess­fully? How do you out­com­pete not only the prey it­self, but other preda­tors out to rob you of your din­ner?

Well, 50,000 years ago,

some­thing in our brains changed: a shift that en­abled us to imag­ine what an­i­mals were think­ing in a way our more dis­tant an­ces­tors couldn’t. In a way that al­lowed an artist to sit down and carve a stat­uette that recog­nised in lions and men some sim­i­lar at­tributes.

“And in a way that Ne­an­derthals [our clos­est ex­tinct hu­man rel­a­tive] couldn’t. That’s one of the the­o­ries be­hind why Ne­an­derthals went ex­tinct and we didn’t: they were still think­ing of an­i­mals as just ob­jects, not as sen­tient be­ings – be­ings that could think about us.”

Then we went a lit­tle fur­ther. Be­cause in­stead of just imag­in­ing how that de­li­cious-look­ing woolly mam­moth might try to evade the hunt­ing spear, we added an even dead­lier weapon to our ar­moury: the trained dog.

“At some point – it could have been 30,000 years ago, ac­cord­ing to some sci­en­tists; others would put it at 15 - we got dogs that were suf­fi­ciently train­able to help us hunt. There’s good ev­i­dence that, as hu­mans spread into Amer­ica from the north bring­ing dogs with them, there was a wave of ex­tinc­tions that fol­lowed a few thou­sand years later.”

From that point on, for the tribes and peo­ples who didn’t have dogs – or didn’t un­der­stand them – food would have been far scarcer on the stone ta­ble.

But there’s some­thing deeper go­ing on here. For surely, when such a part­ner­ship be­tween hu­man and dog de­vel­ops, feel­ings change, too. Call it love; call it trust; call it co-de­pen­dence. Call it what you will; it’s there.

John Brad­shaw nods.

“If we didn’t have af­fec­tion for dogs and they didn’t have af­fec­tion for us, the part­ner­ship sim­ply wouldn’t work. In hunt­ing, you’ve got to trust the dog to do its own thing: you can’t hunt with a dog on a leash.”

We’re meet­ing – John Brad­shaw and I – in the green room at Chel­tenham Sci­ence Fes­ti­val, where he’s just done an event along­side a whip­pet called Cesc. (No dis­re­spect to John; but when the usher show­ing peo­ple to their seats com­mented on how packed the talk was, some­one replied, ‘Well, you have got a dog here’.)

In his talk – and in his book – he de­tails what we know about this early re­la­tion­ship with do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals. Some facts are based on ar­chae­ol­ogy

– a dog buried 7,000 years ago in Ten­nessee was old enough to have suf­fered arthri­tis, mean­ing its hunt­ing days would have been over well be­fore death; yet it was val­ued enough to be kept, and rev­er­ently buried. Other facts are based on study­ing indige­nous peo­ples who still func­tion as hunter-gath­erer so­ci­eties. Among these are the Guajá in north east Brazil. When the men kill an adult fe­male mon­key dur­ing a hunt, they do their best to cap­ture any in­fants to bring back to the vil­lage. There, the women de­cide whether the baby an­i­mal should be killed or kept as a pet. If the lat­ter, it be­comes pro­tected – so much so that the younger women will breast­feed it along­side their own chil­dren; and, as the mon­key grows, even pre­mas­ti­cate food for it.

(And you thought you loved your pet…)

Feel­ings be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals have changed over time. But they’re also dif­fer­ent within and be­tween modern-day cul­tures, as John points out.

(Per­son­ally, I’m scarred by a school French-ex­change, when a class­mate was taken to a hutch at the end of the gar­den and asked to pick her favourite bunny. She chose the cutest, snuf­fli­est-nosed, fur­ri­est lit­tle one of all. And was served it up for tea.)

In Ja­pan, even to­day, pe­teuthana­sia is widely dis­ap­proved of. And while Brits and Amer­i­cans see guide dogs as part­ners, the Ja­pa­nese see them as slaves: de­prived of au­ton­omy; un­paid labour­ers. In Ja­pan, pet fu­ner­als are com­mon­place (but cave: there have even been ser­vices held for ro­bot dogs which couldn’t be re­paired af­ter Sony stopped mak­ing re­place­ment parts).

Some peo­ple - the world over cam­paign against the keep­ing of pets, for a whole raft of rea­sons: from a per­ceived mis­di­rec­tion of re­sources (the money should be spent on hu­mans), to house­hold cats slaugh­ter­ing wildlife.

De­spite these dif­fer­ing views, though, there’s lit­tle doubt that a love of pets has some­thing of the in­nate about it. In the 1960s, an­thro­pol­o­gist Paul Spindler took chil­dren from an or­phan­age – where they had lived, with­out

‘You can’t hunt dog leash’ with a on a

an­i­mals, since birth – and in­tro­duced them to kit­tens. Al­though the younger girls and boys were ner­vous, those aged three and above in­stinc­tively knew what to do. They gen­tly picked up the kit­tens, talked to them, and cra­dled them as if they were hu­man ba­bies.

Even for adults, a love of an­i­mals in others sig­nals trust­wor­thi­ness. In one study, a con­cocted pro­file was put on a dat­ing site, show­ing an at­trac­tive man but with clearly un­pleas­antly self­ish traits. When the phrase, ‘I like dogs’ was added to the oth­er­wise-un­changed de­scrip­tion, ‘he’ re­ceived 10 times more in­ter­est.

All well and good, I hear you say. But, at the end of the day, I love my pet! How I came to love them – the whats, where­fores and whys – is all well and good; but it doesn’t af­fect that warm glow I feel when my dog bounces to greet me (unadul­ter­ated bliss show­ing in its very drool); or the calm I ex­pe­ri­ence when I stroke it.

Well… yes.

And no.

John Brad­shaw is, by pro­fes­sion, an an­thro­zo­ol­o­gist: a sci­en­tist who spe­cialises in in­ter­ac­tions be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals. But he’s also an an­i­mal lover in his own right. A man whose pet at­tended his wed­ding. (“It was in all the pho­to­graphs, with a nice ban­danna round its neck; he was that kind of dog.”)

In other words, John is a man who un­der­stands – through per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence as much as study – why our mis­con­cep­tions about our pets can lead to dif­fi­cul­ties.

“Some 15,000 years ago, our dogs slept along­side us; fol­lowed us around wher­ever we went. To­day, we’ve changed. To a large ex­tent, our pets haven’t. And our modern life­styles are not very suit­able for these an­i­mals, to be blunt,” he ex­plains. “In the old days, peo­ple prob­a­bly trod in dog poo ev­ery day and re­garded it as be­ing part of life. They let their dogs wan­der the streets - which they still do, of course, in many parts of the world. Cats used to bring in prey to the home; now, sud­denly, no, no, no! That’s a ter­ri­ble thing!”

Hang on a mo. Is he say­ing we’re mak­ing our an­i­mals un­happy?

“The one ex­am­ple I’ve been blath­er­ing on about for 20 years now is that dogs hate be­ing left alone. Pre­vi­ously, that just never arose as an is­sue. Now, sud­denly, we live in smaller groups; we all work most of the time; we have to go out. We just think it’s OK to leave a dog be­hind. And, as far as we know, no dog likes be­ing left alone be­cause they don’t re­ally get it. They don’t un­der­stand that you’re com­ing back.”

So there you have it; there’s the rub.

Over mil­len­nia, we’ve per­suaded dogs to love us so much that the vast ma­jor­ity can’t cope when we’re not there. We’ve changed; they haven’t. So dis­turbed is John Brad­shaw by this modern phe­nom­e­non that, a few years ago, he got to­gether with the RPSCA to pro­duce a fact-sheet on how to train a dog to sur­vive sepa­ra­tion.

“It should be as im­por­tant as teach­ing your dog to sit,” he says. “Don’t teach your dog tricks; teach your dog to be com­fort­able when you’re not there. And do things to keep your dog oc­cu­pied. You might be a tidy per­son, but leave some of yes­ter­day’s clothes on the floor so the dog has your scent, for ex­am­ple. That’s very re­as­sur­ing, as far as dogs are con­cerned.”

Is John say­ing that it’s time to ditch the an­thro­po­mor­phism? To stop imag­in­ing Obi as brave, Tara as a fam­ily body­guard, Bobby as an in­con­solable mourner. To think of a dog as just a dog.

Not ditch. He shakes his head. Just tem­per it with a few of the things that we’re learn­ing.

In­deed, there are more and more stud­ies of do­mes­tic dogs be­ing un­der­taken; stud­ies which have be­come even more de­tailed since neu­ro­sci­en­tist Greg Berns trained dogs to cope in MRI scan­ners.

Fair enough.

But MRI scan­ners, hor­mone mea­sure­ments, and stud­ies of the past will al­ways have their lim­its. So – I ask John Brad­shaw - if he could ever (in some par­al­lel uni­verse) ac­tu­ally sit down and talk to a dog, what would he ask?

He grins; it’s a ready an­swer. “What does it feel like when I’m not there? That would be my num­ber one ques­tion.”

‘Don’t teach your dog tricks; teach your dog to be com­fort­able when you’re not there’

John Brad­shaw, the an­thro­zo­ol­o­gist and writer.

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