Does your dog really love you?

Ellen's daughter and dog

Ellen's daughter and dog - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s 2.4 children

I wonder what he is thinking,” said my daughter as she squeezed the dog’s face between her hands and pulled him towards her for a kiss.

“Get off me?” I suggested.

She looked horrified.

“You love me, don’t you Obi?” she said in a singsong baby voice. “You’re my itty bitty little munchkin pie, aren’t you?”

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The dog cocked his head and looked up at me with pleading eyes.

They have a love-hate relationship, my daughter and my dog. She loves him. He hates her.

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Every time she appears, he runs for cover.

“Where are you, Obi?” she calls, creeping around the house and searching under beds and in cupboards like Jack Torrance in The Shining. “I just want to give you a cuddle.”

She treats him like a living equivalent of a stuffed animal.

I’ve tried to explain to her that he doesn’t like to be dressed in a bonnet and pushed around in a buggy, that he rather likes his own space, that he would much rather chase a ball in the garden than sit and have a dolls’ tea party in her bedroom (door firmly closed so he can’t escape).

“If you ignore him, he will probably seek you out to play,” I suggested.

She tried. The dog nestled in his bed, one eye warily open. Half an hour later he went to sleep.

“He’s being boring,” my daughter said, and pulled him out for another cuddle as he yelped at the rude awakening.

“I just love him to death,” she exclaimed, reminding me of the character Lennie in Of Mice and Men who accidentally kills a puppy while stroking it.

Now, before anyone calls the RSPCA, I should point out that the dog can hold his own.

My daughter is the only member of our household he growls at – a warning to back off.

He is also a champion barker – a deceptively ferocious sound when you consider his size.

“I wonder what he is trying to say to me,” my daughter muses when he starts yapping.

Where she is concerned, I think it is self-explanatory, but I have to admit there are occasions (when the children are not home to bait him) when I wonder what he would say if he could talk. What’s on his mind when he looks up at me with those big, warm, brown eyes?

He wags his tail every time I enter a room; he hangs on my every word. I talk to him like I would my best friend, but does he truly understand me?

Or is he really thinking: “I am a dog. I put up with you ’cos you feed me. That’s it. I’m not human. I don’t think like a human. I pee on lamp-posts, not in toilets. I eat rubbish. I sniff crotches. I am unaware of my own flatulence.”

If so, fair enough (although I have met a few humans who fit that description too).

Maybe he can’t solve problems, however good a listener he appears to be. Maybe he doesn’t understand the trials and tribulations of life and can’t offer moral support when I need it most. Maybe he just doesn’t grasp the complexities of human emotion.

But I can always count on him for unconditional and uncomplaining love, right?

Apparently not. Depressingly, science suggests that just because you adore your pup doesn’t mean the feeling is mutual.

A recent study by a Scandinavian research team for the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, under the title “I like my dog, does my dog like me?” drew conclusions that dog owners might find bitterly disappointing.

“There was no evidence to support the view that because a person has a strong emotional bond to their dog, their dog is similarly attached to them,” wrote Therese Rehn and her co-authors.

For the sceptics among you – or those of you just convinced that Fluffykins and Twinkletoes love you back ? it may be comforting to know this study, like all studies, has limits: It reported on just 20 dog-human pairs (although larger studies are in the works).

And the caveat was that dogs do care – but they respond more to what you do with them than how much affection you show them.

In short, this means that constantly hugging a dog (like my daughter is prone to do) will not be received as well as challenging him with problem-solving tasks.

Dogs need affection, of course, but also mental stimulation.

I tried to explain this to my children.

“You need to have a bit more respect for the dog,” I said. “It’s wonderful that you love him as much as you do, but ease off on the petting and the baby talk.

“He wants to run, he loves to chase things, and he wants to use his nose to track.”

My daughter accepted the challenge.

While the dog was out for a walk with my husband, she laid out a selection of treats in an obstacle course around the house.

There were bits of chicken hidden in toilet rolls, morsels of sausage in shoes, kibble under tables, inside boxes, stashed in nooks and crannies.

The puppy was delighted. He set off, sniffing out each of the snacks, winding round in circles and up-ending furniture as my children whooped with delight.

The trail led out the kitchen, round the playroom and up the stairs – and straight into my daughter’s bedroom.

And there she waited with a juicy bone.

“You can have this in return for a cuddle,” she said, eyebrow raised.

He paused. Considered his options. Then with a leap he was in her arms.

“He loves me!” she exclaimed, triumphantly going in for a squeeze. At which point he snatched the tidbit, turned tail and ran off to hide again.

Find me tweeting @EllenWiddup

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