Every now and again, I’m reminded of what an incredible and improbable relationship we have with dogs.
Partially, I’m talking about our cross-species friendship, the likes of which exists (as far as we can tell) nowhere else on the planet. Mountain lions and coyotes are both predators that inhabit the terrain around my house, but they don’t team up and have play dates. They don’t sleep in the same dens or share their meals. And neither do any other groups of social carnivores except humans and dogs.
But what makes this relationship all the more improbable is that we were not originally hard-wired for the experience. The best example I can offer of this is from something that happens occasionally when I’m out hiking my dogs through the backcountry. During those hikes, I often like to stop and sit down and close my eyes and listen. I like how nature sounds. The chirp of the birds. The buzz of the insects. My dogs running around to inspect this hole or that. And that low hum—some distant echo off the canyon walls that always seems to be there.
A few days back, I was sitting and listening, ears open, eyes closed, when my dog Bella, a pit-bull/healer mix, came running up to me. She’s been around me long enough that, when I sitting with my eyes closed, I never worry about her crashing into me
And this day was no different. Bella did what she often does—stopped directly in front of me to lick my face a few times. Normally, after this happens, she trots away. But the other day, she lingered with her mouth right beside my ear. She had been running, so after she stopped licking me she started panting: hot, hard animal pants that boomed in my ear.
While she was licking my face, there was almost no reaction. Sure, I got that slight bit of pleasure I always get from a dog licking my face, but that wasn’t much more than a light buzz in my nervous system. But when she panted in my ear, my entire body freaked out. My stomach dropped—as if I had gone over the first hill on a roller-coaster—and then my body jolted—like a bolt of electricity had shot through me.
Even before I realized it, I had jumped to my feet and taken up a wide-eyed, aggressive stance and the entire reaction was completely automatic.
What was actually happening was I was getting a chance to watch my amygdala at work. Here’s what I mean: The human senses take in about 400 billion different bits of information every second. The very first place this information travels is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain governing primal emotions such as fear and rage.
Among the oldest portions of the human brain, the amygdala is old enough that certain reactions have become hardwired instinct. For example, when we see a dark, twisty shape in the grass, we will automatically jump backwards before our brain has time to realize we’ve seen a stick not a snake. This get-me-the-hell-out-of-here response shows up around heights, snakes, spiders, and—yes—the throaty pant of a live animal in one’s ear.
Certainly, we co-evolved to live with dogs. Certainly we have been cohabitating with them for somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years, but for millions of years before that the hot pant of an animal in our ear meant nothing good. And the memory of that is still buried deep in our brain.
So when something happens, like my dear friend and constant companion Bella triggering a fight-or-flight response, I am again reminded of how improbable is our cross-species friendship. How long and hard both my forbearers and Bella’s forbearers had to work to make that connection. And how much responsibility I still have to cherish it.
Steven Kotler is the author of A Small Furry Prayer.
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