Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Marvel at your pet

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Marvel at your pet
Rev. Ian Markham

By Rev. Ian Markham

Data shows that pets are good for us. Naturally, different pets bring different benefits. But, at a minimum, we learn how to care for a living creature – and often the pet brings much-needed companionship. But there is much more: Our pets are incredible and just knowing a little bit about the pet opens entire alternative worlds.

Maddie the labradoodle, who lives in the Markham household, will be my focus. There has been a dramatic growth in canine science in recent years, which is seeking to understand the dog world. We now know that dogs primarily see in blues and greens rather than black and white, as some have assumed. This is because they have two cone cells to sense color unlike the three that humans enjoy.

We also know that dogs have a remarkable sense of smell. Scientists estimate that a dog’s nose has 150 million olfactory receptors, while the human nose just has 5 million. While we just use 5% of our brain mass for the hard work of smelling, dogs use 30%.

This means that dogs can pick up a miniscule smell: studies have shown as little as one part in a trillion, which is equivalent to one drop of a liquid in 20 swimming pools suitable for Olympic competition. In addition, thanks to the Jacobson’s organ, which is found inside the nasal cavity, the dog can send messages from this organ directly to the brain, which means a particular smell identification does not get confused with other odors.

The Jacobson’s organ helps to explain other important mysteries in the canine world. For example, the traditional way that two dog’s identify each other is through a quick sniff of the rear end. It is not the stool that interests the dog, but the anal sacs that contain glands that generate a distinctive chemical combination. The pungent aroma carries crucial information that includes age, gender, health status, emotional state and previous meetings. It is a complicated way of exchanging business cards.

Now cynics suspect that our enthusiasm for dogs is built on an illusion that they “love” their owners. The truth, these cynics say, is that it is just cupboard love – owners care for dogs, dogs appreciate the care; however, studies are showing that there is more going on.

Clive Wynne, a leading canine scientist, has shown that there is a distinctive bond that forms between dog and owner. In a rescue experiment, where dogs have learned how to open a box in which their owner is crying with distress, almost all the dogs do “rescue” their owner. This bond is strong and deep.

Dogs sense mood changes in their owners. They can detect the body chemicals that arise on our skin when we are anxious. They pick up the adrenaline when the owner is stressed or scared.

They know more about us than we realize and they develop habits of connection. The most famous illustration is the story of the dog Hachikō. In 1924, a professor at the University of Tokyo had a dog who, every day, would wait for the professor’s return at the train station. When the professor died prematurely of a cerebral hemorrhage, Hachikō continued going to the station to wait for the professor’s return.

The gardener who took care of Hachikō allowed the dog to go daily to the station for seven years after the professor’s death. When Hachikō died, he was honored as an example of loyalty, then stuffed, and placed in Japan’s National Science Museum.

What is true of dogs is also true of many other pets. They are all remarkable. There are things that they can do that humans cannot. And for any dog-owning readers, do pause and marvel at the miracle of the presence of the canine life in your midst. They love you more than you realize.

The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.