What is love?

How the relationship that we have with domesticated animals taught us the meaning of love.

This exploration into the most fundamental emotion of all, love, was stimulated by me just finishing Pat Shipman’s book The Animal Connection.  Sturdy followers of Learning from Dogs (what a hardy lot you are!) will recall that about 5 weeks ago I wrote a post entitled The Woof at the Door which included an essay from Pat, republished with her permission, that set out how “Dogs may have been man’s best friend for thousands of years longer than we realized“.

The following day, I wrote a further piece introducing the book and then commenced reading it myself.  Please go there and read about the praise that the book has received.

What I want to do is to take a personal journey through love.  I should add immediately that I have no specialist or professional background with regard to ‘love’ just, like millions of others, a collection of experiences that have tapped me on the shoulder these last 67 years.

I would imagine that there are almost as many ideas about the meaning of love as there are people on this planet.  Dictionary.com produces this in answer to the search on the word ‘love’.


[luhv]  noun, verb, loved, lov·ing.

  1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
  2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
  3. sexual passion or desire.
  4. a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person;sweetheart.
  5. (used in direct address as a term of endearment, affection,or the like): Would you like to see a movie, love?

But, I don’t know about you, those definitions leave something missing for me.  Here’s my take on what love is, and it’s only by having so many dogs in my life that I have found this clarity of thought.

Love is trust, love is pure openness, love is knowing that you offer yourself without any barriers.  Think how you dream of giving yourself outwardly in the total surrender of love.  Reflect on that surrender that you experience when deeply connecting, nay loving, with your dog.

Here’s how Pat Shipman expressed it in her book:

Clearly, part of the basis of our intimacy with tame or domesticated animals involves physical contact.  People who work with animals touch them.  It doesn’t matter if you are a horse breeder, a farmer raising pigs, a pet owner, a zoo keeper, or a veterinarian, we touch them, stroke them, hug them.  Many of us kiss our animals and many allow them to sleep with us.  We touch animals because this is a crucial aspect of the nonverbal communication that we have evolved over millennia.  We touch animals because it raises our oxytocin levels – and the animal’s oxytocin levels.  We touch animals because we and they enjoy it. (p.274)

Pat soon after writes,

From the first stone tool to the origin of language and the most recent living tools, our involvement with animals has directed our course.

Thus it is not beyond reason to presume that tens of thousands of years of physical and emotional closeness between humans and their animals have developed the emotion of love in us humans, so eloquently expressed in art and life.

There’s another aspect of what we may have learned from dogs.  In Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog, she writes of the way that dogs look at us,

Having been folded into the world of humans, dogs no longer needed some of the skills that they would to survive on their own.  As we’ll see, what dogs lack in physical skills, they make up for in people skills.


There is one final, seemingly minor difference between the two species.  This one small behavioral variation between wolves and dogs has remarkable consequences.  The difference is this: dogs look at our eyes.

Dogs make eye contact and look to us for information – about the location of food, about our emotions, about what is happening.  Wolves avoid eye contact.  In both species, eye contact can be a threat: to stare is to assert authority.  So too is it with humans.  In one of my undergraduate psychology classes, I have my students do a simple field experiment wherein they try to make and hold eye contact with everyone they pass on campus.  Both they and those on the receiving end of their stares behave remarkably consistently: everyone can’t wait to break eye contact.  It’s stressful for the students, a great number of whom suddenly claim to be shy: they report their hearts begin to race and they start sweating when simply holding someone’s gaze for a few seconds.  They concoct elaborate stories on the spot to explain why someone looked away, or held their gaze for a half second longer.  For the most part, their staring is met with deflected gazes from those they eyeball.

Then a few sentences later, Alexandra continues to write,

Dogs look, too.  Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance.  Not only is this pleasing to us – there is a certain satisfaction in gazing deep into a dog’s eyes gazing back at you – it is also perfectly suited to getting along with humans. (pps 45-46)

No apologies for now inserting the photograph of Pharaoh that adorns the Welcome page of Learning from Dogs.  Underlines what Alexandra wrote above in spades.

Now that is a gaze!

OK, time to start bringing this to a close.

The Toronto Star ran a great review of Pat Shipman’s book from which I will just take this snippet,

“But understanding animals and empathizing with them also triggered other changes in humanity’s evolution, Shipman said.

All those things allow people to live with people. Once people have domesticated animals, they start to live in stable groups. They have fields, crops and more permanent dwellings.”

In other words, we can see that living with animals took us from nomadic hunter-gatherers to living with other people in stable groups; the birth of farming.  It is my contention that the evolution of communities and the resulting more stable relationships elevated love leading to love becoming a higher order emotion than just associated with the ‘grunt’ of reproduction.

I started by saying that it was Pat Shipman’s book that stimulated me to wander through my own consciousness and realise that when I bury my face in the side of one of the dogs, say on the bed, it resonates with the most ancient memories in my human consciousness.  Indeed, I am of no doubt that my openness and emotional surrender to that dog enables me to be a better, as in more loving, person for Jean.

So let me close this essay by asking you to return here and read the guest post tomorrow from author Eleanore MacDonald, where Eleanore writes of the loss of their dog Djuna.  You will read the most precious and heart-rending words about love.  Thank you.

9 thoughts on “What is love?

    1. Thank you, Pat. The deep realisation of what the human relationship with animals, primarily domesticated animals, has delivered for both humans and those domesticated animals has been one of those great learning experiences in my life. Much of that learning has been your ‘fault’! 😉 Paul


  1. Paul, this is just lovely! It’s not at all hard to see that you know well the beauty of the closeness and intimacy the dogs afford us! There is such a poignant perfection in what we receive from the animals… and what they teach us, if only we would listen. This speaks to the many amazing relationships I’ve had with dogs over my years and I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, no the reality, that what we seek through touch we receive ten fold in such precious intimacy. Someday perhaps we mere humans will finally get the lessons and be able to apply it to all living things! 😉 I will seek out the book now … Again, thank you for this… Eleanore


    1. Eleanore, great pleasure to have your comment and interest in Learning from Dogs. Yes, so much to learn from these beautiful, trusting, loving animals.

      We have 11 dogs here at home (plus 6 cats), 9 of whom are ex rescue dogs. One of them, Loopy, was rescued by Jean when she was living in Mexico. Loopy suffered so badly at the hands of so-called humans that it was 6 months before Jean could handle Loopy.

      In my own case, when I came into Loopy’s life, it was practically a year before she learnt that this man wasn’t going to beat her to shreds. Eventually Loopy allowed me to fondle her ears, stroke her back. Now when I sit down outside she will bury her face in my lap and I can press my face deep against her face.

      What trust and love we learn from dogs.


  2. Love is about mind melding (I wrote a longer comment, and I thought I sent it, but it completely disappeared from all systems, I just discovered… No doubt the work of Satan, ;-)! A longer and beefier version will appear on my site )

    To say that love brings the oxytocin up, explains how attachment is amplified, but it does not explain why attachment happens.

    A hint about why attachment happens, and why it is so strong is that minds are mostly programmed by the environment provided to them. OK, in the case of cephalopods the sea itself can provide much. In the case of social insects, a few simple behaviors are easily produced.

    But advanced brainy animals have much more sophisticated behaviors.

    Our brains have reward centers all over. My guess is that they are set-up so that enriching input from another mind is most appreciated, once basic physiological needs are satisfied.

    Indeed, without love we would be nothing much. We would not even know how to see or think in a human way. And certainly we would not know how to feel correctly. Most of these behaviors are learned… from the loving environment provided by caregivers. And they are socially learned, and they can only be socially learned because our care givers were motivated to do their job well, by that particular organization of neurobiology found in advanced brains that we call love.


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