Ask The Expert: I just howled to say I love you

Can dogs fall in love with other dogs? With St Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought we’d try and take a peek into the unknown territory of canine romanticism.

Now, the first thing to understand is that dogs don’t experience the same range of emotions that humans do. We might like to interpret that misty-eyed look on our border collie’s face as a sure sign of infatuation with that spritely young French poodle prancing around the park, but in reality, that’s projection on our part. Sure, it has been proven that dogs can experience a variety of emotions which include happiness, excitement, love towards their owners and even jealousy towards other dogs. But when it comes to romantic love as we know it, well, there is very little evidence to suggest that dogs fall in love the way we do.

The reason for this is simple: dogs are animals of instinct. And the notion of romantic love as we know it is a human cultural construct. As any dog owner who has had a bitch in heat will know, there’s very little discretion involved when a dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do. Since dogs release more than one egg during ovulation, females can even give birth to a litter with more than one daddy dog (called a multiple-sired litter)!

And although there are a fair number of species in the wild that do pair off for life or simply for one mating season — like penguins, swans, Gibbon monkeys and beavers — dogs are essentially pack animals, which means that the survival of the species is the most primary concern — and not the feelings of Mrs Poodle.

Interestingly, the domestic dog’s closest living relative, the grey wolf, is actually monogamous. Wolves form mating pairs and become the alpha male and alpha female in a pack consisting of all of their offspring. Yet only the alpha male and female are allowed to mate…  until some of the braver young ones decide to leave the pack and start their own family. Sound familiar?

Yet one shouldn’t be as shallow as to equate the big L-word to mere carnal pleasure. Canine love is about much more than the dog you choose to make whoopee with. A simple dip into the bottomless pool called Youtube reveals countless ‘love’ affairs between dogs and cats, dogs and parrots, dogs and elephants (remember our story about Ellie the elephant and Duma), dogs and kangaroos, etc…

Dogs also form amazing bonds with their owners, and with other dogs. Dogs who live together tend to form a kind of a pack and will go to great lengths to protect each other. And then there’s also the casual friendships formed daily all across dog parks across the country… the cautious approach, the wagging tail, the polite sniffing of snout and business end… and then the exuberance of finding a playmate who understands the unadulterated pleasure of romping across the lawn at full speed or tumbling about in a showcase of skilful acrobatics. According to me, this is the purest form of dog love… finding that playmate that’s just on the same wavelength. And my heart breaks every time I need eventually to separate my dog from his true (temporary) soulmate.

So this Valentine’s Day, instead of buying your beloved companion her favourite treat, take her to the park or field and let her play with her dog bestie for as long as her heart desires. Ag, what the heck, buy her a treat and a new pillow too… it’s the month of love after all!

by Eckhard Cloete