This blog post is all about the deep and lasting imprints that dogs create with their owners, and why this happens. It talks about the structure of our brain, why we love, and the importance of connection.
But it is really just a little love note to my dog, Denton, who died at the end of February.
Denton was a chaser-of-birds, shoe-stealer, comfort-deliverer and my little shadow. We had adopted him from a breeder back in 2007 as a seventeen-month-old cocker spaniel. With legs slightly too short for the show ring, his genetically limited prowess on the doggy stage was the loss of his former owner, but the gain of my family.
As a grown dog Denton was happiest at home, preferably inside and usually in about a two-metre radius of my feet. Eventually when we installed a dog door so that he could indulge in his favourite pastime at his leisure (napping in the sunlight that falls through our front window), rather than anxiously awaiting my return by the back gate, he was really pretty happy with how he’d organised his humans.
When he died of liver failure it flowed a river of terrible grief through our family, and the pain of his loss ran deep. I miss him terribly.
Why is it that dogs and humans can connect so profoundly, and so permanently? Despite not speaking the same language, humans and dogs can communicate through a glance, an expression, or their body language. Dogs know when to offer comfort – a silky head to caress, a wet nose poked into your hand, or a toy dumped at your feet for play. They love you fiercely, honestly, and without pretence.
The shared architecture of our brains explains some of this. Neuroscience has shown us that emotion is controlled by the limbic part of our brain, a structure which is also shared with our canine friends and other mammals. This part of our brain is what enables us to nurture our loved ones, protect our own, and seek and revere the connection that we create. So, it is no surprise that dogs and their humans can engage in this type of mutual connection and emotional interpretation.
So why do we love, when we know that inevitably we will all end up with the pain and devastation of loss – whether it be through death, separation or betrayal? Why do we allow our hearts to get enmeshed with our significant others, our children, or our pets?
We love because we are biologically wired to connect. It is a human imperative. Love should be valued, nurtured and appreciated, as it requires bravery and strength for both the good times and the bad.
Connection on all levels sustains us as humans, both individually and as a community. You probably have layers of connection every day, perhaps with a four-legged friend, your partner or colleague, or flowing from the conversation you had with the postman when you signed for a parcel this morning. Every little bit of connection supports your wellbeing, which is why you also do yourself a service by being there for others – whether it be by listening mindfully to your friend, helping at your kid’s sports game on the weekend, or chatting with the person who served you at the petrol station.
The day before we had to say our final goodbyes to Denton I took him to the park. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, and there was a gentle breeze. Denton couldn’t really walk, so I had to carry him from the car. I laid him down under a tree, lay next to him, and we just watched the sun dappling down through the leaves onto the grass for a while. I stroked his soft ears, and I cried for the loss of him that I knew was inevitable and the grief that was unavoidable.
So goodbye my sweet boy Denton. We can’t seem to break the habit of keeping the blind up just enough so that you can get through your dog door. You pop into my mind at all sorts of unexpected times, and I am still careful to put our shoes away so that they don’t get randomly plonked in another room, the garden, or your bed.
Thank you for being my dog, and for letting me be your human.
- Hilary x
* Some of these photographs were taken by Lynne Miles, reproduced here with gratitude. xx