Why Do Dogs Make Me Broody?
The Debrief: 'Put a human baby in my arms and I’ll stand, stiff and awkward, until it’s time to let go of it. Give me a big floofy Pomeranian, on the other hand, and I’ll pet, pat and try and steal it from you.'
I’ve never been the kind of person who coos over a baby. Put a human tot in my arms and I’ll stand, stiff and awkward, until it’s time to let go of it. Give me a big floofy Pomeranian, on the other hand, and I’ll pet, pat and try and steal it from you. I’ve run across busy roads to say hello to pretty pugs, my phone is full of pictures of other people’s Labradoodles and my Facebook feed’s a festival of dog memes. I think I might be broody for dogs.
Every dog has its day, and it seems all dogs are having one hell of a day right now. There are more than 1.5 million photos tagged #doggo (internet slang for dog) on Instagram and a further 67,000 photos tagged #puppy. Facebook group Dogspotting - where people post pictures of pooches they’ve seen out and about - has more than 500,000 members and is growing by 10,000 people every week. The group has a number of rules, including no selfies and no 'known dogs'. But is it weird that we’re all sharing snaps of other people’s pets? Why do we find dog memes so #relatable? And, is our generation hungrier for hounds than those before us?
Art collector William Secord loves pictures of dogs so much that he’s spent 25 years running a gallery specialising in canine-inspired art. He says human desire to capture dog beauty in all its furry forms isn’t a new thing. Dogs’ earliest appearances in art date back to prehistoric times. Sketches on the walls of caves at Lascaux in France depict men hunting with dogs. Plus, individual portraits of pups were painted as early as the Italian Renaissance. By the Victorian era - largely thanks to Queen Victoria’s love of dogs and the rise of the middle classes - we were all after a canvas representation of our beloved pets.
Secord's favourite dog picture is Edwin Landseer’s painting of Eos, Prince Albert’s favourite Greyhound. 'While not sentimental, the Greyhound seems to express great affection,' he explains, saying the reasons why someone would take a social media snap of their dog are similar to why you’d want a portrait. Ultimately, he says it’s as simple as ‘pet dogs are a much-loved part of the family. These people love their dog and want to share it with their friends.’
In fact, the connection between owner and dog is so strong that a recent study on women who had both kids and dogs found that the same areas of the brain lit up when they were shown pictures of them. Plus, tests have shown that even unknown dogs can make us smile. Looking at a cute pup causes the release of oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone’, and can impact heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, and the concentration of stress hormones too. This might explain why looking at a doe-eyed German Shepherd with its tongue out can make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, or how when we look at pictures of pups we imagine them to have the characteristics of children.
‘Cute dogs may have an air of innocence and at the same time they seem to offer unrequited love,’ says anthropology professor Peter Gray, explaining that their big heads and eyes make them look innocent and curious. ‘They offer a seeming depth of emotional connection while not complaining or demanding in the same way that a kid or some other person might.’ Gray adds that rising financial investment in dogs could be related to how people in countries like America and the UK are having fewer kids. ‘If you don't have a child or few children there may be social gaps in one's life,’ he says. ‘The warmth of a pet dog or even dog memes online may help buffer those social reaches.’
This analysis seems particularly reasonable in an era when our social media feeds are full of negative news and other people's holiday brags - all adding up to make us feel worse about ourselves rather than better. An oxytocin-inducing picture of a dog looking stupid seems far more relatable than someone’s Instagrammed avo on toast.
Psychologist Stanley Coren explains that the desire to pass on an emotional release to others could be why we share so many dog pictures. ‘As human beings we like to do things which we think will make other people smile,’ he says. ‘Which includes the posting and sharing of images that make us smile. Dogs, and their pictures, certainly fall into that grouping.’ I think that there are other factors at play. As a generation, we’ve become innately aware of what does well on social media. I feel like in the back of our minds there’s always an awareness that dog pics rake in the likes on Instagram and Facebook: sometimes I’ll take a picture of friend’s dog before I’ve even played with it, then ask myself ‘why did I even do that? It's not even my dog!’. It would make sense that the combination of an oxytocin-inducing pup, plus the dopamine rush of social media likes make sharing dog pictures irresistible.
Bioethicist Jessica Pierce has written extensively about the ethics of keeping pets. She says she has mixed feelings about the phenomenon of taking photos of other people’s dogs - and also our obsession with sharing pup pictures online. ‘I love to see people celebrating the cuteness and personality of dogs around the world,’ she says. ‘Yet maybe the practice isn't as innocuous as it seems, at first glance.’ Her issue is that the process makes them objects of amusement. ‘Dogs already suffer from being considered objects, rather than subjects,’ she says. ‘Because you "own" the dog.
If this trend reinforces our consumeristic and frivolous attitudes toward their welfare, then it isn't doing dogs and those who love them any favours.’
For Gray though, the sharing of dog content helps build valuable connections between people online. ‘Many dog owners can relate to the humour and cuteness of others' dogs,’ he says. ‘Helping establish online exchanges with friends or groups [like Dogspotting] over other dogs. The dogs foster a social means of engagement. An obsession with dogs becomes part of changing family and technological lives.’
So, why am I and so many other people obsessed with dogs right now? It could be because they’re filling a void in our childless lives or because they give us a boost of oxytocin. It could be because they provide unconditional love no matter how badly we behave, but I reckon the answer lies with Gray’s 13-year old, dog-loving daughter Sophie. ‘I asked for her thoughts on this question,’ he says. ‘And she responded, "Because dogs deserve to be obsessed over".’ That sounds about right to me.
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