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Don't feel guilty about lavishing your dog — it's evolution

Dogs are welcome inside Downtown Dogs in Hyde Park Village in South Tampa. The store sells toys, dog car seats, organic dog food, decorated leashes and more.
Published Jul. 12, 2013

We are playing right into their paws, their cute, strangely irresistible paws.

As a society, we are spending more on pets than ever, an estimated $55.5 billion in America this year, with dogs getting the largest share. More than 78 million dogs live in 46.3 million households in America and that number is rising. Floridians are particularly crazy about dogs, with ownership in the Sunshine State increasing 42 percent from 2006 to 2013, jumping from 1.9 million dog-owning households to 2.7 million.

What if we aren't in as much control of this as we thought, lavishing our pooches and kissing their slobbery, stinky faces and dealing each night with paws shoved in our backs as we share a too-small and too-hot bed?

What if dogs self-evolved to be our best friends, as some experts now say, because it was in their best interest?

What if the wolves chose us?

Think about this:

It's a common belief that we, as superior human beings with thumbs and words, took the wolf thousands of years ago and created the domesticated dog we see today. We conquered them.

But some experts now say we had little to do with it. When humans settled down and became agrarian, we created trash — tasty trash, full of nice gnawed bones and leftovers. The boldest wolves who did not run from humans got dibs on the best trash. Those who were friendly got even better grub.

The friendly ones bred together, begetting friendlier pups, who begot friendlier pups and so on. They learned to read our body language and emotions. We let them into our lives and have loved them so much that now, more than 10,000 years later, an entire industry survives based on our adoration of these empathetic creatures, and their need for organic food and squeaky toys and massages.

"The answer of why we love dogs so much is because, in order to survive, they had to have us love them," said Dr. Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and co-author of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. Hare is also the chief scientific officer at Dognition, a company that performs personality tests on dogs, similar to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for humans, testing canines for traits such as empathy, memory, reasoning and communication.

Dogs, he said, have "evolved to be very successful by hijacking our pleasure pathways."

Resisting them is difficult.

"Everything about their psychology, their appearance, everything has been shaped to maximize our love for them," Hare said. "They've had 12,000 years of turning into absolutely irresistible animals that we want to help and take care of."

And care for them we do.

What we spend on pets now is more than triple the $17 billion we spent nearly 20 years ago in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Dog owners surveyed by the APPA said they typically spend nearly $1,500 a year on their pooches. And pet spending appears recession proof, with 75 percent of owners saying the economy doesn't affect how much they dole out on their pets, according to a survey by Harris Interactive for CouponCabin.com, a coupon website.

More than a quarter of those queried said they would put their pets' health care needs before their own. Thirty-four percent said they spend less on their friends than they do on their pets, 32 percent spend less on their family and 22 percent spend less on themselves.

Ninety-two percent of dog owners surveyed said their dogs are part of their family, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research company.

Seventy-two percent said their dog is also their best friend.

"Dogs have co-evolved with us," said Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "We developed the ability to communicate with them and they have developed the ability to read us, better than any combination of us and animals."

When this bond began is debated — some say 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, other experts say more. Regardless, for a very long time, humans have loved their companions dearly. Some of our ancestors buried their dogs after death, ancient bones found placed near ancient snacks and water bowls for the dogs to take with them to the next world. Zawistowski said humans were sometimes laid to rest with their dogs. A woman, buried 10,000 years ago, was discovered in her grave hugging a puppy.

Zawistowski said it's not that humans love dogs more now than in the past, we are just more open about showing it.

"The reality is we've been doing this for thousands and thousands of years," he said. "It's just been reflected in different ways."

Zawistowski said dogs probably lived in our homes from the beginning, as people then lived more intimately with animals.

As society progressed, many dogs moved outdoors. But Hare said modern inventions — rabies vaccines, flea and tick control — have made it possible for us to have dogs in our beds again.

Hare said as society becomes more transient, dogs are filling the need we have for family. More than one in five U.S. adults — 22 percent — have hosted or been a guest at a birthday celebration for a pet, CouponCabin.com stated. Of those people, 17 percent said they spent more than $50 on the party.

On the opposite end of the happiness scale, 16 percent of Americans reported they have held or attended a funeral or memorial service for a pet.

Treating dogs as human family members isn't detrimental to their psyches, Hare said.

"When dogs are given a choice to spend time with other dogs or spend time with people, they much prefer to spend time with people," Hare said. "But for wolves raised by people, they choose to be with wolves and not with people."

Dogs are also very good for us.

Zawistowski said studies have reported that dogs reduce our stress level, heart rates and blood pressure. Children who grow up with dogs have more robust immune systems, he said. Heart attack patients who owned dogs were reported to have shorter hospital stays and better outcomes.

"There is a lot of research to suggest that people need companionship," said Dr. Joseph Vandello, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. "There are not only psychological health benefits, but physical."

Dogs are good companions because they aren't judgmental, he said. They don't provide the stress sometimes found in human relationships.

"They give you unconditional love," Vandello said.

And we, in turn, give it back.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3405.

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