Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson first gained attention as projects director at the Freud Archives. Jeffrey’s research led him to the conclusion that Freud erred in turning away from his insight that human misery was fueled by childhood sexual abuse. Masson speculated that Freud gave in to peer pressure rather than acknowledge a truth that would have harmed his career. Jeff accused the psychoanalytic establishment of covering this up for decades. For such heresy, he was excommunicated from the psychoanalytic profession and treated to numerous public burnings by its members. Since then, Jeff’s insights have become conventional wisdom in psychotherapeutic circles. In spite of some important contributions to our understanding of the human psyche, Freud has been discredited for his therapeutic ideas in no small account because of Jeff’s work. And Freud’s thought has been relegated primarily to the intellectual dustbin of literary critical theory.
For the last 20 years, Jeff has turned his formidable intellect to the study of emotions in animals and in animal rights. His newest book on this subject: The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving: How Dogs Have Captured Our Hearts for Thousands of Years, has just been released. Today Jeff and I are going to talk about this very special human-animal bond.
Andy: We are in the same family as the great apes. We share 98% of our DNA with them. We are not remotely related to dogs. So how can you claim we are more like them than like chimps, for example?
Jeff: We may resemble primates physically, but when it comes to certain emotions, I think we have more in common with dogs than with the great apes. The ability to reach out to other species, for example, is pretty much unique to humans and dogs.
Andy: Why are we so attached to dogs, and so much less attached to, say, pigs or cows or sheep?
Jeff: Partly because we can read their emotions so easily. We know when we do something they like. How do you know if a cow finds you loveable? Dogs tell us. They rarely have a reason to fear us. Pigs, cows, and sheep are simply food for us. That is why I am a vegan!
Andy: You say dogs are the only animal who has benefitted from domestication by humans. What about cats, though? We don’t eat cats or otherwise exploit them. And they, too, seem to have chosen us. So what is the difference?
Jeff: The difference is that in spite of domestication cats have not changed their nature to the extent that dogs have. Dogs want to spend all their time with us, cats only occasionally. If they decide we are doing something they don’t like, they simply walk away. Dogs try to find a way to interest us. They are obsessed with us in a way that cats rarely are.
Andy: How old do you think the connection with dogs is?
Jeff: Well, this is a hotly debated point at the moment. I am no geneticist, so I can only answer in terms of what seems reasonable in the many conflicting accounts I have read. The range is very wide: from 15,000 years, to 125,000 years. Most scholars seem to think that somewhere in the middle, around 40,000 is a good compromise. I would agree. But the important point is that dogs have been with us longer than any other domesticate, animal or plant!
Andy: Do you believe that barks are an attempt to communicate with us?
Jeff: I do. And I believe in the next ten or twenty years we will have deciphered their meaning. There is already work on this.
Andy: Are pit bulls different?
Jeff: Different than other dogs you mean? In their aggression? I have not lived with a pit bull, but when I see them on the street, I am always a tiny bit nervous. When I tried to analyze why, I realized that I was nervous of the “owner”, not the dog! Dogs pretty much give us what we want. If we want them to be sweet and gentle, they generally are. If we want them to terrify our neighbor, they do. But it does seem true that pit bulls have been bred to feel no pain and to fight. I would not recommend them to a family with small children, but, you know, my ignorance is beginning to show here!
Andy: Do dogs display temperament differences from birth?
Jeff: They do. Whether that can be changed completely over time through socialization is an open question. I tend to think it can.
Andy: Are some dogs “naturally” aggressive?
Jeff: They can be bred that way. Are humans naturally aggressive? We can certainly become that way. But I don’t believe that a dog raised in a happy gentle home from birth will remain aggressive even if born with that temperament. I could be wrong!
Andy: Do dogs have any kind of moral system or ethical beliefs?
Jeff: Yes, I would say they do. They have codes of honor; you can see it when they play. You do not attack a dog who has submitted for example.
Andy: Do you believe dogs have any sense of death?
Jeff: Yes. Think of dogs in a shelter waiting to be euthanized (if not adopted). They seem to know that you are their last best chance. Also, they definitely get depressed (or if that word is too strong, deeply sad) when a companion, human or otherwise, dies.
Andy: Why are some dogs able to attach to just about any species, not just humans and other dogs? Does any other animal do this in the wild? How about domesticated animals?
Jeff: That question is at the heart of my new book. I think humans and dogs are the only two animals who consistently make friends across the species barrier, and I wonder if this is merely a coincidence, or if this is something we have taught each other? I think the latter. We reinforce a certain tendency in one another until it becomes a trait. So it is an example of mutual domestication. Other domesticated animals only rarely exhibit this gift. Cats, from time to time, but not reliably and consistently, the way dogs do.
Andy: Do dogs have any moral qualities we lack?
Jeff: Yes, dogs have a greater sense of friendship than we do. They are also able to enjoy life in daily events to a greater extent than humans: their joie de vivre is unmatched. They attach for life: have you ever heard of a dog divorcing his human companion? As for loyalty, well, I rest my case. I do feel that in the future we will learn about some emotions dogs have that are beyond humans.
Andy: Do you believe dogs can be exploited?
Jeff: Yes, and it is one of the saddest things to see an animal who wants nothing but love treated with cruelty. Without believing in an afterlife, I believe there is a special place in hell reserved for humans who do this.
Andy: Have you ever met a dog you did not like?
Jeff: Yes, but usually I look up from the leash and see the source.
Andy: Is our relationship with dogs unique?
Jeff: So much so, that I would argue that dogs make us who we are. We are human in the way we are human because dogs have been our companions for thousands of years. We would be a totally different species without them. I cannot imagine life without dogs.
Andy: Have dogs taught us to love?