I just had an interesting conversation with the manager of my horse’s new barn. We were swapping stories and our outlooks on all things equine when he said, "I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make is thinking that their horses love them." I’m sure I made some sort of noncommittal reply, but after we parted ways I gave the comment deeper thought. Does my horse love me? I don’t think he does.
Don’t get me wrong, he is very attached to me, and I’m not the only one who has said so. I had to take him in to a veterinary referral hospital for some dental work a while back, and the technicians mentioned it after he kept looking over his shoulder whinnying at me as they led him away. When we are together he is usually kind and playful and seems genuinely happy that I’m there. After we’ve been apart, he’s either excited to see me or sulky if I’ve been gone too long. I love him, but I think he sees me more as a source of good things like grooming, fun outings and food, as well as a protector. This doesn’t necessarily equal love.
I define love in this situation as a willingness to put someone else’s best interests in front of your own. I don’t think Atticus is capable of doing that. He has injured me (never seriously and always unintentionally) when he’s been scared because he is focused solely on self-preservation. I chalk this up to horses being prey animals. When push comes to shove, they fall back on an "everyone is out to get me" point of view. I remember one time when I fell off Atticus after he over-reacted to some perceived threat. After he realized his mistake, he sheepishly walked over to me, putting his nose on my shoulder. He looked genuinely sorry to find me in a heap on the ground, but I doubt that he had the slightest concern for my well-being in the heat of the moment.
Do my cats love me? I smile even as I ask that question. It brings to mind the quote, "Dogs have owners; cats have staff." I do not doubt that others have different relationships with their cats, but mine seem to view me as I suspect the aristocracy looks upon their faithful servants — with affection, but that’s as far as it goes.
Dogs are another story altogether. Too many dogs have put their own well-being at risk to help their people to discount the possibility that love plays a role in that relationship. I’ve never been in mortal danger, but I did have a dog protect me from a stick once. Before you laugh, let me defend my dog by saying this was one scary sounding stick.
I was walking down the side of the road with my dachshund-beagle-corgi named Owen when I accidentally kicked a smallish branch covered in dry leaves. It made a horrendous cracking-scratching-rattling noise. Owen jumped in front of me with fangs bared, fur raised, and eyes shining with hate tinged by a little fear, ready to protect me from the evil beastie that dared threaten his person. I was so proud of my little guy! I made a big fuss over him to ease his embarrassment after he realized what the "threat" really was.
So, what do you think? Do your animals love you?
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Today was a reprint of Dr. Coates's column from this past February.