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
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.
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.
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.