Dogs Have Stockholm Syndrome

Dogs Have Stockholm Syndrome

Zoom way, waaay, waaaaaaaaaay out into human history (a la Sapiens by Yuval Harari) and consider our relationships with animals; for the most part we'd keep them at arm's (or spear's) length. Animals were really important of course, but humans didn't exactly have a BFF in the animal kingdom. That changed, the story goes, when some (slightly nice) wolves started loitering around villages and we started to slowly sculpt them into dogs: the most variably sized and shaped single animal species on the planet, purpose-built to be our buds over some tens of thousands of years.

It's a decent story: an ambitious young-gun bipedal ape gets hooked up with a socially inclined endurance athlete and they go on a worldwide hunting spree! But of course, what do actually know about the origins of this relationship are? It's not like there was a board meeting 30,000 years ago and everyone decided to adopt the local shaggy mesopredators left the meeting minutes for us (DB - suggest looking into cats instead due to lower shedding profile, TS - potential for shared diseases? follow up with local shaman). It seems like it just happened organically, like all the best relationships do.

But I think this story is too simple, doubly-triply so in the modern era, when we don't need a lot of bear-defense or wounded-stag-dragging-down anymore. In terms of pure survival benefit, most people know their dogs have very few marketable skills. We don't really need dogs, but we still keep them around (sometimes at considerable expense to ourselves).

Maybe the "need" in that statement is too strict. We don't physically depend on dogs for survival anymore, but we are (arguably) in an era of extreme social isolation, with a widespread and painful deficit in our levels of emotional attachment with other living things. There's nothing better than a dog, some would say, to fulfill this need for connection. Their jobs nowadays is just to hang out with us.

Choose Your Friends Wisely

But really, we all know friendships shouldn't be exploitative (well, Mark Zuckerberg should know, at least). Is it a real friendship if it's maintained only for the benefit of one side? And at a species level, what's even worse: if one side has reproductive control over the other, what's to stop the creation of an inter-species codependency? From the dog's point of view, is this better for them?

It may come down to how you feel about dogs. If you love them, you probably say something like, But Captain Snifflebutt loves going on hikes with me! I'm sure that's true, but I'm not disagreeing with you. I'm simply noticing that the reason you have such a loyal, loving, unquestioning, pro-You companion is because your part of a system that intended to create exactly that.

In other words, all-knowing Nature gave us something as symbolically terrifying as a wolf, and within a few thousand generations, we whittled out all the scary stuff and shoved the end-product into our purses. That's weird. We don't tell fairy tales about the Big Bad Chihuahua, warn people about corgis in sheep's clothing, or dance to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Brussels Griffon". We (i.e. humans) intentionally made a new species that has a confusing admiration for the very perpetrators of it's own dependency.

In fact, it reminds of nothing more than a famous Swedish bank heist in 1973, the origin of the term "Stockholm Syndrome" (Norrmalmstorg syndrome, to be pedantic). This semi-legit pyschological term describes a condition where a hostage develops feelings of admiration for their captor. Even up to the point of defending them from prosecution for the actual act of kidnapping them (that's loyalty!). It's a paradox: victimization generates affection for the victimizer.

So, what the hell does this have to do with your pug? Well, I think some of the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome are eerily recognizable in most household pups.

Would Your Dog Recognize These Symptoms?

Positive Feelings and Loyalty: In Norrmalmstorg syndrome, the captive develops a love for the captor. I don't think we can even argue about who's who in this relationship: we're the ones in charge, and dogs are at our mercy. Rather than resent us for it though, they eagerly wait at the front door of their prisons just for us to get home from work! We've bred dogs continuously for affection. That's the trait that's extreme in this species. Think about it: your dog has forgiven you for all sorts of terrible things you've down, whereas your human friends rightly recognized the atrocious behavior you just displayed. Dogs don't care, you walk on water no matter what.

Perceived Protection and Security: A captive is by definition less powerful than their captor. Our abilities are beyond the compression of a dog (She made the ball fly across the park again! He conjured food out of nowhere! The Great One has commanded open The Gate to the Outside!). They're on our team because we're super-dope (to them).

Dependency and Isolation: You know that friend who you only see when they're between partners? Because they need to be in a relationship to be self-fulfilled? Humans are like that needy partner. I do not want to see you fraternizing with other species, okay?! Dogs got cut off from other animal relationships early on. Nowadays when they do interact with another species, it's to assist in the subjugation.

Mixed results on the subjugation front.

Trauma Bonding and Adaptation: Love can be an emotional roller coaster. Especially so with a creature that's been created to hang on your every movement. It's really messed up, from a certain point of view, to have an animal that is so pained by our absence that they will chew through a door to get to us. I'm not saying you're an animal abuser if you leave your dog at home when you go to work, but it does perpetuate a cycle of dependency. When your hand finally does come down for a belly pat, it's nothing but validation of the dog's elevated opinion of yourself. He shows me favor! Bless the heavens!

Man's Best Victim?

Did we get into this relationship for the dogs themselves, or because we like to appear all powerful? In Stockholm Syndrome, the victims believe their captor is worth admiration, possibly even worship. At the very least, they take the side of the person who limited their freedom. Isn't this exactly our relationship with dogs? Haven't we taken an independent animal from the wild and manifested it into the very qualities of this (possibly spurious) Scandinavian psychological condition?

It's not to say the dogs haven't benefited. They're pampered! They're the favored besties of the current world-dominating species! But that's because we've molded them to be our auxiliaries. We didn't go out of our ways to make the lives of wolves better as our equals (actually quite the opposite), we wanted a subordinate. Maybe we just needed someone to love us. Maybe, even very early on, we were just lonely. Jan-Erik Olsson, the bank robber who's famous heist gave rise to the term Stockholm Syndrome, might have been in need of connection. Had he not been short on cash that day, he could have gone to the shelter and picked up a pair of friendly Lapphunds. Maybe dogs's rightful role is as willing dupes, absorbing the limitless ego of their humans, and thereby sparing potential psychological torment of human victims. Thanks, Dogs, for putting up with us.

Greg Bishop

Greg Bishop

A veterinarian with unquenchable creative impulses. Unquenchable? Hmmm... creative "tendencies"? Well, it depends on how well I slept last night. Also a writer, illustrator and whatever-elser.