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If you want a friend, get a dog

This truism has been attributed to a range of larger-than-life men, including the former US president Harry S. Truman and the Romantic poet Lord Byron. On closer inspection - trawling through fiction, it becomes the advice of Wall Street’s cynical Gordon Gekko - it appears the actual quote is apocryphal, yet the sentiment comes down to us through the ages because 15,000 years of bonding between people and dogs has created a relationship which can be stronger than a marriage, or just as intense as the love between a parent and child. From the tiny but fierce Chihuahua to the huge-yet-soppy Great Dane, our dogs provide us with opportunities to be as authoritative or as silly as we’d like - or need - to be.

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I don’t have my own dog right now, but when I look after my friend’s Lurcher each week, the dog’s idiosyncrasies constantly come to the fore, whether he’s barking at the Dulux dog in an advert or doing manipulative food dances throughout the entire process of preparing and eating lunch. It’s like watching the canine equivalent of jazz hands. Out on walkies, his chilled demeanour attracts reticent children and old whippet-loving pensioners alike, but when a dead leaf suddenly blows past and shocks him, the surprised look in his eyes resembles a Please Rescue Me face from an RSPCA appeal. He’s aging, so he doesn’t always see the squirrels that made such an easy chase last summer. It’s hard not to spoil him with little bits of smoked mackerel and leftover chicken, and harder still not to get broody for a pet of my own.

Last year, figures released by UK retailer Sainsbury’s showed that the cost of a dog’s lifetime care - from its food to its vet’s bills and all points in between - was £17,000. Despite the poor economy, dog ownership is booming. In America alone, pet owners shelled out $50 billion on their companion animals in 2011. In just a few generations, dressing a dog up in a complete outfit has passed from the realms of eccentricity into something approaching normality. For some, money is no object: spending on pets can run to designer clothes, canine psychologists, spa-based pet pampering and excursions to ‘doga’ sessions where one’s barking buddy can practice his best downward-facing dog. Our fascination with competition and show dogs knows no bounds: this year, attendance and viewing records for Britain’s most prestigious dog show, Crufts, soared higher than ever. Given half a chance, it seems we’ve become hell-bent on turning our pets into the little people we can afford to spoil, while indulging ourselves as well.

On the other hand, bad-dog aggression is a talking point of urban life. We’ve become adept at using other people’s dogs as a way to justify anxiety about a certain form of working-class masculinity, muttering dark words about out-of-control Staffordshire Bull Terriers or Pit Bull-type breeds raised as testosterone-filled avatars for their young male owners. Since 1991, when the Dangerous Dogs Act became law in Britain, some breeds, like the Japanese Tosa or the Pit Bull Terrier, can’t be kept in the home by anyone, much less bred - and any dog found to match the breed description can be destroyed. Despite the hype of violence and the thousands of puppies that wind up in rescue each year because owners didn’t reckon on training difficulties, dog breeds such as the English Bull or Staffordshire Terrier have a long, positive history of child-friendliness and are not dangerous - the vast majority of owners raise them in a loving, family-friendly setting.

Of course, owning a dog is about more than mere control. With men, and in particular with powerful men, the give-and-take of raising a dog to be trustworthy and loving may, as the advice implies, help develop skills such as caring and empathy in a neutral space, without the soft-lad risk to a man’s position in the human pack. In fact, this slow, deliberate build-up of small kindnesses can actually enhance human life: a 2011 study by the University of

California using data collected from individuals for up to 90 years showed pet ownership as a likely factor in greater longevity; the presence of pets has also been shown to lower our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. When I see men relating to their own dogs with humour and vulnerability,

I’m reminded of how impossible it is to be a raging egomaniac when you’re standing in the middle of a grass patch in a park, holding a steaming plastic bag of poo. Dogs bring us down to earth and show us our limits. My own relationship with dogs began, with hiccups, at the age of three: I attempted to ‘milk’ our poodle Sam, whose violent objection to having his wiener mistaken for an udder can still be seen in a tiny scar on my nose. No, it wasn’t the brightest move - and when my dad told me Sam went to live on a farm shortly after the incident, I believed him. By the time I was old enough to unpick the lie, we had a less nippy dog and I’d developed much better boundaries.

Since the domestic dog’s origin as a wolf-like pack animal attracted by the cooking at primitive campfires, humans have learned to tailor and selectively breed canis lupus familiaris to inhabit different shapes and roles. In so doing, humans began to practice selective breeding millennia before science gave it a name. Specific breeds of dog became officially codified in 1873 upon the formation of the first British Kennel club, which now recognises over 150 different breed types and encourages caution whenever a particular type of animal becomes wildly popular and at risk to over-breeding. On the flipside, unregulated puppy farms produce thousands of ‘pedigree’ dogs in response to trend demand: Dachshund, Pug and Labradoodle-cross buyers should take extra care to avoid mill-reared dogs. Other popular dogs are wildly impractical and often unsafe to breed: French Bulldog puppies are born via Caesarean section because their heads won’t pass through their mother’s birth canal. Is it any wonder that advocates for responsible, cruelty-free dog ownership urge anyone looking for a puppy to approach pet rescue and animal shelters first, or to consider adopting a grown but homeless dog instead?

Although it’s tempting to imbue dogs with human attributes because their behaviour can be so entertaining, our soppy anthropomorphism of normal canine traits has a scientific basis: as pack animals, they’re attuned to ‘emotional contagion’ - the ability to sense that something is amiss in a human’s disposition and then to react appropriately and helpfully to the information. In the most intelligent breeds, dogs are also capable of recognisable empathetic traits, registering concern if nearby humans are upset, or yawning in sympathy when companions mention how tired they are. Just as dogs have evolved to become attuned to people, human beings have likewise developed a greater understanding of canine idiosyncrasies; our automatic reactions to their pain or anger run along the same neural pathways we use to register the anguish or alarm of a distressed child. But at heart, our ability to relate to dogs is caught up in seeing them experience the wonder of a complicated world in a very uncomplicated and joyous way, reminding us continually that life is full of happy surprises - and the occasional roll in the grass is to be encouraged.