A writer recently declared that dogs and cats do not love their owners. I discount this opinion to a large extent as it was written by a person who admitted to not being a pet person and who went on to ridicule those of us whose attachment to our pets is often ridiculous. It isn't much of a stretch to ridicule the ridiculous, but the writer was going for the low-hanging fruit.
While that author is clearly in the wrong in ridiculing pet lovers (not necessarily mistaken, just wrong) the comment got me to wondering just what we mean when we claim that my little Buddy loves me.
Certainly it is likely that Buddy does not love in the same way as a mature human loves, although I feel stymied trying to find enough mature humans to make up a statistically valid sample. This isn't a bar to the use of the verb, since it is acceptable to say that immature humans, 2 year old children for instance, are capable of loving other people.
What is the evidence that Buddy loves me, and not just the food I provide him? There's no doubt Buddy loves dinner; often he has said of his dog food, like any human lover, "I could just eat you up!" My contention is that there is behavioral evidence for a deeper, richer relationship to me.
First of all, Buddy wants to be with me. Not all the time, of course; even family can become too much. And Buddy does love the big chair, too. But when Buddy and I are both inside the house he frequently chooses to sleep or play in the room in which I am doing my human activities, even though those activities do not involve him directly.
What's more, Buddy likes to listen to me talk. He is never more relaxed than when he can lie down and listen to my voice. It doesn't matter whether I'm practising a sermon or conversing with a friend or even talking on the telephone; it seems clear that the sound of my voice is all that is needed.
Buddy likes to do things which make me happy. I won't say he is particularly adept at determined what those things may be; I've had other animals who are smarter at discerning human desires. But when he thinks he has found a behavior to match my desiderata he engages with an enthusiasm which isn't explained by merely the word of praise he may receive. The word isn't the reward; the relationship is.
Buddy likes me to do things which make him happy. "Take me for a walk," he wants to say. "Take me out in the woods. A free run would be nice, but a walk with you is better." The unnamed writer from the first paragraph would doubt my imputation. Well enough for this dog, who at best leads me to the door or picks a direction at the corner, but how explain the dogs and cats who bring us the toys to be thrown or dangled or rolled?
All this, I see, can be explained away as something less than love, the more easily if you esotericize the concept. But in actual reality love can only be identified by the behavior it engenders and I will be glad to classify as love any relstionship based on wanting to be together, relaxing in the sound of each other's voices, and picking activities which make each other happy. Do you really want something else?