The Best Kind of Friend

One more reason to love dogs? They give us something people can’t: solitude and companionship. At the same time.

I work from home, in the blissful quiet away from the bustle of the world. I love solitude but don’t like being alone, which could be an impossible paradox—if it weren’t for dogs. Time alone with your dog does not mean being lonely. 

Recently, deep in thought about a new project, I absentmindedly stood up from my desk and began to pace around my office. During one of these circuits, I became aware that Walter, my 7-month-old, 115-pound wolfhound, was walking with me, step for step. Silently. Seriously. A close, quiet shadow to my left. A partner in my solitude. 

I laughed at the dearness of what he was doing. As we looked deeply into each other’s eyes, he “smiled” with a relaxed expression and wagged his long tail. When I hugged this great, wiry-coated guy, he leaned into me and I could feel his chest expand as he slowly inhaled and then exhaled in a familiar sigh of contentment.

Then I got back to work. More focused, and a little happier. OK, a lot happier.

Walter is tall, still growing, rangy, and full of youthful enthusiasm, so in general, I wouldn’t describe him as subtle. Except in moments like these. And I know there are more coming. Many more, because I have so gratefully shared my life, including my solitary moments, with dogs.

But isn’t the very idea of sharing solitude a contradiction?

About a hundred years ago, the essayist and naturalist John Burroughs made clear that he didn’t think so. He wrote that with a dog, “You are alone and not alone; you have both companionship and solitude.”

It’s an idea that has intrigued me, and I’ve known so many others who have expressed this same sentiment: that their dogs have provided soul mate-level company without interfering with contemplation. In fact, they’ve enhanced it.

I turned to the experts, starting with Alexandra Horowitz—she’s been thinking, writing about, and analyzing this unique relationship with dogs as head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University. She’s also shared her insights in wildly popular books—among them the best-selling Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Hear, and the recently released Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond. 

“With some exceptions, dogs don’t intrude on our solitude,” she wrote to me in an email. “My dog may bark or want attention, but they are hugely agreeable to simply sit when we sit, walk when we walk, play when we play. In fact, there is research showing how quickly dogs will follow their person from sitting to walking to standing—even, often, turned in the [same] direction their person is.”

That, of course, reminded me of the little stroll Walter took with me in my office, the one that was less an interruption and more a psychic bolstering.

In recent years, there has been a wonderful explosion of scientific inquiry that takes our bonds with dogs and other animals more seriously than ever. Studies illuminate just how smart dogs are, reveal evidence of the ways in which they (and animals in general) connect with us and us with them, and track the benefits of this connection. It’s mutual. 

Imaging labs are aiming to “picture” what dogs are sharing with us through patterns of brain activity. 

There are specially designated labs in universities around the world—like the one Horowitz runs— assessing dog cognition, and there’s a hefty dose of bonding analysis involved, too. There are even imaging labs where dogs are (positively) trained to allow for the latest fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to try to “picture” how dogs’ brains work through patterns of brain activity—what they’re thinking and feeling and what they share with us. All of these pieces are part of a puzzle that’s gradually coming together. 

The human bond with dogs is at least 15,000 years old, maybe more than twice that, and yet we keep discovering more about it. Lately, it’s with cutting-edge technology.

Researchers have known for some time that just being with a dog can lower our heart rate and our blood pressure (happily, it’s reciprocal; studies suggest we lower theirs, too). Research from a university in Hungary that used fMRI technology suggests that, among other things, dogs can distinguish emotional cues in our voices.

In particular, I’ve always enjoyed the kinds of observations that are about how dogs can be better companions than the people around us. Dogs can lower our stress even when our closest human connections fail. 

In the 1990s, medical researchers at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York monitored the heart rate and blood pressure of hundreds of couples who were given stressful tasks to perform, such as making a speech or solving math problems. The results suggested that your dog will be of more comfort to you in a given stressful situation than your spouse.

Research has revealed that petting a dog (or cat, by the way) can reduce stress-related cortisol levels, that dogs are more expressive when we are looking at them, and that those of us who love dogs may live longer, healthier lives with them. A new report just this year has zeroed in on those expressive doggie eyebrows that lift up and, according to the experts, likely cause a nurturing response in us. It seems that the muscle responsible for that sweet puppy dog expression, so lacking in wolves, evolved because it’s something we favored in the canines who live among us.

As that eyebrow inquiry suggested, there is something magical and measurable that often happens when we look into each other’s eyes: We feel good. There have been analyses about that chemical connection and the release of oxytocin, the feel-good “love” hormone. Meg Daley Olmert wrote an entire book about it: Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond.

As Horowitz wrote to me, “If I think about the scientific aspects of dogs that make them such good companions, yes, it’s the oxytocin hit when we pet dogs or gaze at them; it’s their responsiveness to our gaze; [it’s] their looking us in the face, like a partner or friend. It’s also, for me, their being tuned in to aspects of me that I might not be awake to: for instance, their noticing a difference in my behavior when I’m sick or upset. Anecdotally, my dog picked up on my pregnancy before I did; non-anecdotally, we know that they recognize us by our smell, and can find lost humans by theirs. What is more personal than our smell? And yet dogs never complain about it: They revel in it.”

Dogs are spectacular beings and individuals, and they’re very much present as their own personalities in the lives of those of us who love them. In our email exchange, I had to agree when Horowitz kindly balked about labeling time alone with dogs as “solitude.” That’s especially valid if in any way that seems to negate a dog’s own very real presence. 

So, how do they connect so deeply without making us self-conscious? They certainly don’t achieve that by ignoring us. 

Horowitz has written that dogs watch us like no other animal watches us. My friend, the naturalist and best-selling author Sy Montgomery, amplified that point to me by phone one afternoon. 

“No one will see you with as much love,” she said. “They hunger to know us. Dogs have made it their No. 1 job to know what we’re feeling; that’s more than any other animal.” 

And, in reading us, dogs don’t get hung up on the attributes that we might feel self-conscious about around humans.

“Dogs see who you really are,” Sy said. “They don’t care about your eye makeup or if your hair is combed. They see right to your heart, and they don’t get waylaid by that other stuff.”

At our best, I hope we do the same for them.

Research has revealed that dogs are more expressive when we are looking at them, and that those of us who love dogs may live longer, healthier lives with them.

Science may be measuring the way dogs can improve our lives, and Sy even measured her own life by the animals around her in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals.

Everything I do—writing, reading, running errands, driving—is made infinitely better by the presence of a dog. It’s been that way throughout my life. My parents adopted Penny, our first dog—a glorious collie-type mix—when I was 2 years old. No matter what my social or personal circumstance, I am a better person with a dog. And that seems to only be getting stronger. The older I get, the more they are part of my soul and the less I can part from them. I feel different when I am dogless.

My friend Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has described losing a dog as akin to losing a limb. Liz is an original thinker and the author of a number of revelatory books like The Hidden Life of Dogs.

“So a dog is like a body part, as important to us as our arms or legs,” Liz wrote in Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind (a book co-authored by Sy, and for which I wrote the foreword). Liz goes on to say, “If we’re in the bathroom taking a shower and our dog comes in to be together, we are no more embarrassed by her presence than we are by the presence of our legs. But if a person comes in, we might grab a towel, the intruder would back out quickly, and a torrent of apologies would follow.”

How do we describe the unique role dogs have in our sense of self? Horowitz has listened in on the way people talk to their dogs. In her email, she said, “After much eavesdropping on people talking to their dogs—not the imperative commands, but the one-sided conversations—I began to suspect that dogs play a role similar to the voice in our heads that we have an ongoing conversation with. The one who narrates what you’re doing, reflects on what you’ve done, and plans what you might do in the future. We animate that person in our heads and plant them into the figure of the dog. So we would be no more self-conscious around dogs than we are around ourselves. Maybe less so: Our dogs do not care if our shirts are on backward, we have drooled slightly in our sleep (that might be interesting to them, actually!), or we hum off-key. Other people take us out of our own headspace, but dogs are like our better selves.”

For most people, the late Edward Albee, a three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, is best known for the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But to me, his name is synonymous with wolfhounds. He wrote a beautiful essay about his hounds and how one, Harry, would express himself in an especially wolfhound-y way to those of us who know them. Albee granted me permission in 2007 to reprint that essay in a wolfhound club newsletter I was editing, and the loveliness of his words and his kindness in giving me that permission sticks with me.

Albee and Harry would often sit watching the ocean together, and he wrote that when he’d ask Harry something like, “Aren’t those great waves?!” that the big dog would lean against him “a little and just … sigh.” 

So, when I think of dogs enhancing our solitude or becoming so close to us that their presence provides a kind of unselfconscious joy, I’m gratified that we’ve got such an abundance of social and medical science these days validating it all. But I don’t really think of computers, laboratories, or brain activity mapping. I think of a playwright’s magnificent friend Harry and dogs like him who sit with us watching the surf. All kinds of waves improve when we’re with a dog we love.

Journalist and author Vicki Croke, whose books include Elephant Company and The Lady and the Panda, covers animal issues for the NPR newsmagazine Here & Now. Keep up with Vicki (and Walter) on Twitter: @VickiCroke

Photography by Trevor Paulhus

Originally Published October 2019