Unconditional Love From Dogs

Animal Behavior Associates on 5/28/2008

We recently saw a comic strip that portrayed a dog being adopted from a shelter with the caption "Unconditional love - guaranteed." We've also heard the statement made in other contexts that dogs give "unconditional" love. When examined closely, this statement implies something about the nature of dogs that is an exaggeration at best and at worst, a myth. Such exaggerations can lead to unrealistic expectations from people who have dogs or those looking to adopt dogs. These unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration, unhappiness with the pet and sometimes, the dog being given up or euthanized. This is not in the best interests of pets or people.

The statement that dogs love unconditionally is an exaggeration for several reasons, one of which is that all dogs unconditionally "love" everyone - not just some people, but everyone. While it is true that dogs seem predisposed to form long-term relationships and develop strong bonds with people (what we'll call love), not all dogs "love" all people. The roughly 300,000 people that have to undergo medical treatment for dog bites every year will probably attest to that.

The factors that determine the strength of a bond between a dog and a person are not completely understood. We do know that the quality and quantity of interactions with people, especially when a dog is young, can influence his propensity to form strong bonds with people. Certainly the specific interactions the dog has with particular people can also influence his behavior towards them.

For example, a dog that has had some bad experiences with people threatening or frightening him, can be aggressive to people in certain circumstances. Such a dog may love his family, but not other people.

Even dogs that are strongly attached to their owners or other familiar people may not always be friendly to them. We have seen numerous cases of dogs that were very bonded to family members but would become aggressive around possessions or when disturbed when resting or sleeping.

The complexity of human-dog relationships certainly has parallels with human-human relationships. Even in the most loving of human relationships there are varying degrees of conflict. Some dogs are more aloof than others. Dogs that are not well socialized may be afraid of most folks or even aggressive to them.

The unfortunate implication of the phrase "unconditional love" is that a dog possessing this trait would never hurt anyone, never do anything to displease his owner, and would always be a dream companion. This just isn't true. There may be some dogs that do meet the needs and expectations of their owners, most of the time, but the old saying - you can't please all the people all the time - holds true for dogs as well.

By Dr. Suzanne Hetts and Dr. Dan Estep of Animal Behavior Associates.

This article has been reprinted with the expressed written consent of Dr. Suzanne Hetts, Dr. Dan Estep, and Animal Behavior Associates.