Jeff Masson on the 40,000 Year Romance Between Humans and Dogs

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. 

  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?

Jeff:  Yes.

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5 Responses to “Jeff Masson on the 40,000 Year Romance Between Humans and Dogs”

  1. lolabelles Says:

    Great article and looking forward to reading the book! I am not surprised at all to hear of this research as I have know all my life about the special gifts dogs, and dogs alone, posess 🙂

  2. michael roloff Says:

    as to the introduction to Jeffrey Masson, with Kurt Eisler as my analytic grandfather I will make no comment but to say that I find the intro pathetic. i am glad to see however that mr. masson and i agree on the canine species. best dog i ever had had been the mascot of the department of sanitation, he joined us because we took in a dog named ladybitch and her litter of 13, and he as the father howled until we took him in too. however, wooly bear as we called this half lab half collee, would come and go as he pleased, and if we encountered one of his former owners in their garbage truck, working out of the holland canal garage, he would leap up
    on the running boar and if the window was open into the cab, give the driver a kiss and then out the other side. the first time i saw this i thought i was hallucinating. occasionally he visited the garage for another steak on which they had raised his springy legs. wooly bear had a better sense for “dark” people than i did, which is not necessarily saying much, but i learned to heed his growls when he refused to let certain people into my office.
    working as a surveyor in the old goldmining region north of fairbanks in the depth of early winter i used to be followed by a wolf each and every morning , he hung back about 50 yards, and i could never figure out why, whether i was his next meal or whether he had been raised as a pup by one of the old panners that still had cabins in that area. however, dogs can go wild and feral just as can cats. anyhow, they make better company than most psychoanalysts.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Dear Mr. Roloff. I would have to take complete responsibility for the pathetic introduction. No doubt, I did not do justice to Jeff’s subtle intellect. But thank you for relating your story of your dog. I am sure there are a million (a billion?) similar stories.

  3. michael roloff Says:

    No, andyrossagency, it is not that you merely [probably] failed do justice to jeff masson’s intellect, but to the subtlety of this controversy or its effect or to Freud. The interplay of a child’s wishes, fantasy and actual seductions [which wreak havoc when they become socially controversial, i.e you might be ostracised for having been a victim] was averted in the way the controversy played out – into the hands of the American witch hunt against sex, and Freud, too, for that matter.

    to get back to canines. nick wade a science writer for the n.y. times had a wonderful series on their origin etc. a few months back, starting in the science section there.

  4. Dr. Sydney Carroll Thomas Says:

    Hello, I would much rather converse about animals, but you have piqued my interest. As a Freudian scholar, I have become more of an apologist than an attacker of Freud, and I did not know about Hannah Arendt’s “fatal flaw” and so would love to get a reference or short description as this was part of the curriculum of the Honors College at UMaine for 16 years. My reading of Freud culminates in three stages, and I found if I followed his development of theory, along with the social climate, that he might have actually been anticipating what we now call “the recovered memory” problem. He found it incredibly unbelievable that all of these women had been molested by their fathers. I think I can be objective here, because my own family has been touched by this in a very real way. But truly, I think Freud was far more courageous in some areas then we give him credit for. He anticipated PTSD, ( displacement of affect was elaborated to include these aspects) and Recovered Memory Syndrome (of which I have already spoken). I remember when I had to give my big Honors lecture (before all honors classes which meant an auditorium full of critical profs. feminists, students who love to attack professors). He was the first of his group to take the complaints of women seriously, and oft commented on their intellectual and moral sensibilities. Obviously I may have been wrong, and no longer teach, but even his comments about women not being able to sublimate their emotions (In Civ. and its Discontents) when read in the German seemed to me to be a compliment, rather like “Women cannot, by their very moral sensibilities , LIE to themselves”. Alas of course, men must work and tarry so as to keep civilization going. He was also very progressive in terms of sexual preferences and speaking loudly against a society that prescribed any sort of sexual relationship as being deviant, and he boldly spoke of ‘the cruelty of monogamy”…on the surface sounds bad, but with his formidable explanatory power, makes a good case. Just my 2 cents, probably not worth much. I love you work, have read every book, have heard some of your talks, (like the one where you said you wouldn’t write a blurb for Temple Grandin..loved that! I loved it because I had just left the wild avian rehab after a full day and had been in a controlled but heated debate about why she is wrong wrong wrong! thanks, Sydney

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