Donna Thomas will never forget the day she decided to take 120lb rottweiler Roamin into her home after he survived a near fatal heart attack.
Roamin, a two-year-old rottweiler was found on route 95 leaning up against the guard rail, shaking and waiting for help when local animal control came out and brought him to safety at the North Attleboro Animal Shelter.
He was quirky in his kennel, but Thomas didn’t let it phase her. She took him out as often as she could to walk in the woods and exercise him to help reduce his stress. He had a tendency to guard things and not only was he afraid to go into a car, but he was petrified of cars passing by him on the road. He had been through a lot at just two years of age, but Thomas worked with a trainer and behaviorist to help Roamin get comfortable.
During his stay at the shelter, Roamin suffered a near fatal heart attack. Veterinarians attributed the heart attack to a genetic condition common in rottweilers, but while he was hooked up to oxygen, they said he was suffering from bouts of tachycardia that they were struggling to get under control.
Thomas, who had just recently dealt with heart issues, herself, advocated for Roamin. She said in an interview, “I didn’t choose him. He picked me. The irony was, the dog who chose me had the same heart condition as I did. He never left my side, and I knew I could never leave his.” Thomas knew that if he pulled through, that she would do everything she could to try and take him home.
It wasn’t as easy as just bringing him home after he recovered, however. He had to be introduced to her then 13-year-old pug, Molly. Upon meeting her, he tried to mount her while nibbling her up and down her back!
“Imagine a 2-year-old 120lb rottweiler trying to mount a 13-year-old 22lb pug!”
Thomas says this went on for the first few days, when finally, they were out in the backyard playing and Molly had had enough. She growled and went after him and he jumped back and looked at her genuinely taken aback and ran to the other side of the yard where he waited until Thomas told him it was safe to come back over. From then on, Molly was the boss.
The pair sleep together and Roamin is very protective of Molly. When they are coming in from being outside, he will always wait for Molly who moves slowly in her old age to hobble along into the house. Once she is inside, he will go in after her, but he waits for her to make sure she is safe.
Molly wasn’t the only animal that Roamin had to adjust to, however. Thomas also had cats. One cat in particular, bonded to Roamin almost immediately. Bear, a 5-year-old longhaired black cat grooms Roamin’s head and meows at him for a half hour every night while Roamin closes his eyes and falls asleep.
“Roamin, Molly, and Bear all sleep together.” She adds, “Roamin doesn’t know his own size. He gets playful and it is like a baby elephant jumping up and down in the living room. At the end of the day, all he wants is love. He loves me, he loves molly, and he loves his cats. He never leaves my side, and I will never leave his.”
Our dogs are our truest companions, giving us the opportunity to know and give unconditional love.
There are two primary theories as to how dogs became domesticated, though how and when is still up for debate. The first theory suggests that domestication was a passive process that was the result of civilization. As humans started to form settlements, wolves began to feed from garbage piles which led to habituation over time and the result was the domesticated dog.
The second theory asserts that domestication occurred before agriculture, and was a result of both humans and wolves sharing a common purpose. According to Mark Derr, author of the book “How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends” it is thought that both species hunted the same game and sought after the same resources. We relied on wolves to hunt and in return we provided friendlier wolves with food, water, and shelter leading to domestication over time.
Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, and Clinical Assistant Professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She said in an e-mail interview that it is likely that wolves “…came in close to humans to benefit from the reduction in predators and the presence of food. Dogs that followed hunters may have benefited from stealing or eating the remains of the kill that could not be carried. I suspect that nearness to humans was beneficial enough that wolves who tolerated closer proximities to people survived better and were selected for. That is to say, I believe that the partnership started out as natural selection beneficial for both wolves (who gained safety and food) and people (who gained assistance with running down prey, guarding the perimeter of the compound and food during lean times); and that it was continued with artificial selection.”
Regardless of how dogs came to be domesticated, it is undeniable that we have always held mutually beneficial relationships with our canine companions.
In an article titled, “Why are dogs and humans so good at living together” Ph. D Nigel Barber says that there are specific reasons that humans and canines are so successful at living together. Both species are territorial, hunt cooperatively, and have an emotionally bonded back that greets each other enthusiastically after being separated. These social adaptations, according to scientists, are similar enough that both species have been able to live closely together.
Not only are our social adaptations similar, but dogs are incredible readers of human body language which allows them to predict what their human owners will do. Dogs are considered very empathic, and have evolved to read human gestures in order to be deeply in tune with their owners.
When asked the question of why are we able to live so closely with another species Dr. Borns-Weil replied, “I don’t know why, but I do know that living with another species gives us the opportunity to be the best that we can be. They can help us to look beyond ourselves, to really and truly care for another without any need for return. Dogs help me to be generous, to have faith, to stay present and to focus on what matters. Building a real relationship with a dog, that is to say, a mutual relationship that respects the needs of both parties, challenges us to be the best we can be as humans.”
Society has come a long way from the original domestication of dogs to the canines who are now integral parts of our families. In a study by Archer, 40% of pet owners identified their dog as a family member. According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, 43,346,000 or 35.5% of U.S. households own dogs. In 2017, Americans spent $69.51 billion on their pets. Pet owners are spending money on enriching their dogs’ lives including training, enrichment, veterinary care, and quality food.
Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, noted that she has seen pet owners are much more willing to spend money on their dogs and the tools she suggests. “Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately, some industries exploit that by selling products and services (such as punishment-based training, electronic “shock” collars, etc.) that are of no benefit and even actually cause harm to the animals.”
Dogs that used to be housed outside or in the barn, now cuddle in our beds, get spoiled with toys, and pet owners even ensure that their dogs’ diets are as healthy as possible. Dogs are no longer animals that should stay outside, they are family.
Donna Thomas, longtime volunteer of the North Attleboro shelter, has been working with animals for over 30 years. Thomas also works as a part-time animal control assistant at the shelter. She adopted both her dogs, Roamin, a rottweiler, and Molly, a pug. Roamin suffered a heart attack during his stay at the shelter, but had developed a strong bond with Thomas during his stay. After he pulled through, a medical miracle, she decided to take him home. She wasn’t sure how he would do with Molly and her cats, but he settled in right away and loves his brothers and sisters.
Thomas spares no expense on her animals. “I do whatever they need. I don’t even think about it. What they need, they get.”
She says that during her time working with animals she has noticed a shift in how people perceive our canine companions. “Years ago, it was just a dog and the dog stayed outside. No one got vet care because they couldn’t afford it, and if the dog got sick, then the dog died. No one thought about the vet, after all it was just a dog. Today, through education, public awareness, and laws, people have become more responsible pet owners. In the hustle of this world, our animals are our companions and people are willing to do whatever they can to keep them healthy and comfortable.”
Dr. James Tiede, VMD, relief veterinarian in Massachusetts and Rhode Island has been practicing small animal medicine for over forty-five years. He says that within the past fifteen to twenty years, attitudes have been shifting. “In the beginning, you did the best you could. Now, people are willing to spend more money on their pets as they are part of the family.”
Dr. Tiede says that not only are pets considered part of the family, but that there is an increase in dogs with jobs especially dogs as service and emotional support dogs. “There has been a definite change. Thirty years ago, they never would have done that.”
We can see a shift in attitude towards our dogs legally as well. As of 2015 dogs are now included in protection orders in situations of domestic violence with the introduction of the Pet and Women Safety Act of 2015 (PAWS Act). According to the AVMA there are currently 32 states that have laws in place to make it illegal to tie your dog up outside and while each law varies it makes specifications and requirements for the amount of time a dog can spend outside including specifications on shelter, length of the tether, weather conditions, duration of time, and the conditions to which the dog is confined.
When asked how this change in attitude occurred, Tiede said, “My Grandma could no more picture why I wanted to be a vet. It was totally unheard of. As the generations have gone on, there is more societal interest. Everyone gives millennials a hard time, but it seems they are much more socially conscious.” He noted that changing attitudes towards companion animals may be a result of the internet as more information is available and we can see what is happening in other areas more readily than we could have before.
Dr. Borns-Weil who studies communication between humans and their canine companions said, “I do believe that our society has made many changes with respect to dogs. Some changes are beneficial to dogs and some are not. What has not yet changed in this partnership is that people are still primarily asking what dogs can do for us and not what we must do for dogs. Dogs, even neutered dogs, are still adult animals that want and need to have agency and choices in a species appropriate way.”
She says that we can strengthen our bond with dogs, “A better understanding of who dogs are is first. Also, a commitment to caring for the needs of the dog as they express them and not as we think we know. So, understanding canine communication is key. They give us vital information every second we are in their company just as we give them vital information. They are just much better at reading it than we are.”
Treatment and care of animals are being taken more seriously. With greater efforts at education and outreach by animal advocates and organizations, people are becoming more aware of what it means to be a good pet owner but it is important that we make sure we aren’t overly humanizing our dogs, rather we are working to understand how they communicate with us and what they need to live a wholesome and fulfilling life as a dog.
Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil cautions us to be mindful of not only what animals bring to us but also how we can ensure our animal’s innate needs are being met. “Dogs should be thought of less as furry (and the implication is human) family members. I love working with and living with dogs because when it is done right, it is like living Star Trek without having to go into space. That is, it is an opportunity to live with a different life form with different senses, different concerns, different ways of communication and yet to find a way to bridge the difference while maintaining absolute respect for the other. If you are a Star Trek fan – without violating the Prime Directive.”
Sharing a deep bond with your canine has many health benefits including reduced blood pressure, triglyceride levels, reduced feelings of loneliness, and increased opportunities for exercise and socialization according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Gazing into your dog’s eyes releases oxytocin in both you and your dog. Gentle touch will also cause increased levels of oxytocin and decreased levels of cortisol which is commonly known as the stress hormone. Oxytocin is known for the bond we see between a parent and child, and this is mirrored in our relationships with our dogs.
Thomas says that dogs have a positive effect on her. “My dogs keep me centered, calm, and happy. If I’m upset for any reason, I forget all my problems when I walk in the door and see them.”
“My dogs know that I keep them safe. Dogs are all about love. They want to give love and get love. They know I’m their mom and that I care for them. It is just like having a kid. When they come in from the rain, they wait to get dried off and if I forget to give them a cookie, they remind me. They tell me what they need to be happy, and I try to give it to them because I love them.”
In response to what benefit does having a bond with a canine bring to you, Dr. Borns-Weil replied, “It is a Star Trek moment. It gives me the opportunity to move beyond myself and my own limited senses. It gives the opportunity for me to give something to someone in a daily way and to put myself aside. It also gives me the opportunity to give and receive unconditional love.”