In some ways, cats have it better than dogs.

When Sharon Castellanos  (a.k.a. Grouchy Puppy) asked me in her Influence Positively Questionnaire whether I would like to return in my next life as a cat or as a dog, I reluctantly said that I’d prefer to be a cat because they’re less dependent on humans, who are often less than dependable.

Another reason to prefer felinity has recently occurred to me: Cats aren’t saddled with the myth of unconditional love.

Cat owners know their pets love them — but on their own terms. Dogs love us on their own terms too, but we impose “always” and “in every way” expectations on them.

Dogs, so the myth goes, are empathetic. They intuit our moods and know when we need comfort.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. While Frankie is eating, for example, I could be lying on the floor bleeding and not get any attention until he’s done. The other day, he barked irritably at me because I went back to bed with a cold and didn’t want to play with him and his squeaky chile. As I type this, he’s sitting at my feet, demanding attention.

Always empathetic? Keyed into my every need and mood? I think not.

Here are some conditions — a.k.a activities — under which your dog is likely not to love you if you interrupt, depending on breed:

  • When they’re sniffing something delightfully disgusting.
  • When they’re digging.
  • When they spot a small animal.
  • When they’re chewing on a rawhide.
  • When (as noted) they’re eating.

And if you think that you can mistreat or injure a dog and he’ll always be thrilled to see you, regardless, you’re deluded. He may depend on you for food and shelter and be grateful for kindness but don’t mistake expedience for unconditional love.

It is true, however, that the conditions on which most human love depends are unimportant to dogs:


We don’t look like dogs so they have no basis for evaluating our desirability to our own species. Our weight, height, skin tone or color make no difference to them.


What with their inability to use credit cards and lack of access to online banking, dogs don’t care how much money we have. Dogs would much prefer to live with a poor butcher than with a wealthy banker.

Good Hygiene

The more malodorous we are the better, as far as dogs are concerned. Stringy, oily hair? Hey, they don’t like bathing either.


A male dog will hump any female in heat — and vice versa. Why would they care who we partner with, and how often? The only issue they might have is that human sex tends to take longer — if done correctly — than dog sex. So if you do the deed away from home, your dog might be concerned about whether you will return from a liaison in time to feed him.

Good conversationalist/listener

Whether you are eloquent or inarticulate, engaging or boring… it’s all the same to dogs. Remember Gary Larson’s Farside cartoon, “What Dogs Hear”:  Blah blah blah Ginger. Your dog will easily learn to recognize the utterances that signal food in your household. And you can monopolize the conversation and talk about yourself  all you want.

37 thoughts on “What’s Unconditional Love Got To Do With It?”

  1. what a delightfully funny post. and too true.

    “when they spot a small animal” …oh YES!
    “i could be bleeding on the floor and not get any attention” also seems strangely familiar :p i’m glad to know it isn’t just georgia who doesn’t give a blink about my ouchies! i’ve even tried whining like a dog to get a little sympathy, but just ended up with her nibbling at my face instead.

    we tend to read our dogs as we would human emotions. i’ve been told that when a dog snuffles my face and kisses me e.g. it’s likely to be a sign of dominance rather than love. is this true?

    1. Glad — or sorry? — that you can relate!

      As for dog kissing, that’s definitely not an attempt to dominate; the more we learn about dogs, the more we’ve found that this is not how dog-dog or dog-human families work. If anything, kissing is a throwback to puppyhood and nursing. I was once told that dogs kiss us because they like to lick the salt off our faces — another myth. Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss. Our doggies do love us, if not unconditionally!

      1. haha…glad…in that misery loves company sort of way! :p

        thanks for the updated view on face snuffles. the field of dog behaviour sometimes reminds me of peanuts and eggs. when i was a child, it was good to eat them. when i was a teenager, it became very bad. now that i’ve missed out on years of eating them, they’re kind of good again.

        ahh well, we live and learn. and sometimes, re-learn.

        thank you and have a good day xox

  2. Love this post!

    I always gag a little when I hear someone tell me that dogs offer unconditional love. I think the reason dogs and humans get along so well is because we both act according to our self-interest. Sometimes our self-interest does lead to kindness, affection, etc. But we, like dogs, are opportunists.

    I’d disagree about the hygiene thing, though. I think my dogs like it when I get a bit whiffy. It’s easier for them to find me around the house!

    1. Thanks, Pamela. I just went on your blog to try to find out: Where are you based? I never heard the term “whiffy” but like it very much and am planning to use it whenever possible.

      1. I try to be a little cagey about my location on the blog (whoa, first I’m whiffy, then I’m cagey. what’s next?)

        But I live in the town where Nabokov finished writing Lolita.

        And I hope you enjoy using the word “whiffy.” Just don’t enjoy actually being “whiffy” or you might find your only friends are online.

        1. Cagey I know (and understand; nothing whiffy about that) and Nabokov is probably my favorite writer so I appreciate your frame of reference.

          I’ve been enjoying your blog very much by the way. I’ve subscribed to it.

  3. Great post Edie! I have to laugh at the hygiene one. I had a client say that very same thing on my wall and it is so true! They don’t care if you smell or don’t do your hair or get dressed all day.

    I agree with what Pamela said. I don’t believe unconditional love exists between human and dog, although it’s a nice concept. That doesn’t stop us from loving them or them relying on us – which is the point right?
    Re: Cat vs. Dog – I did Sharon’s thing too, and I too thought about the dangers of being a dog. It’s so dependent on the type of owner you get. Cats can take off and for the most part fend for themselves. Maybe being a cat isn’t all bad.

    1. Thanks, Mel. Yes, when we get past the romantic myths, love is generally self-interested (or hormonal, which is its own form of self-interest). Funny that we both agreed on the reasons to prefer returning as a cat. It’s the same reason I wouldn’t want to live with one. I can be ignored by humans, so would prefer love — if not unconditional — in a pet!

  4. Edie,

    You are right on about the unconditional love, however it’s going to be hard convincing most people. Especially when they just returned from the vet and paid $350 for x-rays, meds. etc., stopped by the pet store and the food they normally buy just went up 10%, then received the new and improved license renewal fee in the mail, my dog had better love me.

    Great post, thanks

    1. Nice to see you, George! Well, look at it this way — people are willing to spend lots of money on their kids and other loved ones, and they don’t even have that unconditional myth to fall back on.

  5. This made me laugh. My dog certainly didn’t love me this morning when I pulled her away from something disgusting and clipped the leash back on. I’m sure she would have much preferred I didn’t exist at all.

    Your comments on faithfulness cracked me up. 🙂

    1. Belatedly — thanks for mentioning the section on faithfulness. That was my favorite too.

      Also, I’ve been enjoying your blog, Rescued Insanity, very much. One of the great things about “Commentluv” is that it gives me the incentive to check out other blogs.

  6. I have to make a little confession, actually I am a “cat person”. We always had cats and I just love their independent nature. When we where are on the lookout for a dog breed that would fit us no wonder it should have “cat skills”, the more independant the better.

    That was what actually led us to choose the Hovawart breed, proud and independent. And Kenzo and Viva are keeping their reputation high 🙂 If a dog would sit because I told them so that would just be to boring. I love the “whats in it for me” way of thinking.

    It is a fun thing to see how our current cat (called “Jule” she is 13) is managing two large 90 lbs Hovawart dogs with pure attitude. You gotta love them for that !

    1. Well now I’m dying to know: Do you also engage in conversations on cat blogs? Or is it only the dog side of your brain (cat brain/dog brain, hmmm interesting distinction) that has you worrying about behavior, food, etc?

  7. Thank you for this! We humans are so impossibly ego and species centric that, IMHO, we project all sorts of emotions and motivations into our dogs sometimes for better and oftentimes worse.

  8. I kind of like to think of the “unconditional love” in a looser sense…my dog loves me despite my foibles, fears, and faults. She doesn’t care if I’ve put on a few pounds. To me, in that way it’s unconditional. At least, that’s the way I think of it.

  9. Wait just a minute! Are you trying to tell me that when Archie ignores my calls and just keeps trundling along the path he chooses (which he does at least 50% of the time), it’s NOT because his unconditional love for me is so overwhelming that he just needs to collect his thoughts? Thoughts which are probably elegies to my wonderfulness? How could that be?

    1. Well, in your case I’m sure Archie *was* overwhelmed by your wonderfulness. As always, there’s the exception that proves the rule.

  10. Love this post!

    You can add “Dogs want to please us” to your list of doggy myths- I think it belongs in the same category as the undconditional love myth. The idea that any living creature just lives to please humans is extremely egotistical.

    Most of the time when people state that the reason their dog behaves for them is because they want to please them- I immediately think “aw, the power of negative reinforcement” Why negative reinforcement? Because in negative reinforcement, the contigency is “do it or else!” If you ask the dog to sit and he doesn’t, then push on his rump to make him sit- you are not teaching your dog to like sitting for you- you are teaching him to avoid rump pushing!

    I think the reason that people think that the negatively reinforced dog want to please them is as follows:
    Usually when the dog performs the desired behavior, the human then praises and pets him. To the dog, the praise and petting are signals that they are now out of the woods – they wont be pushed. Unfortunately, people see the dog wag it’s tail and seem “happy” after the praising and the petting and they think that the dog really likes to work for them. When really, the dog is just very relieved to have gotten the “off the hook” signal meaning- “no your not going to be pushed this time”.

    Don’t believe me? Try teaching a dog who has not been taught to like petting (really any type of shepherd will do) to sit on the word “kerflunken” with the only rienforcer being praise and some petting- don’t withold any other reinforcers contingent on sitting (such as letting them through the door or snapping on their leash, or even food), and do not touch the dog after you have said “kerflunken” for any reason until he sits. I think you’ll find out in really short order that the dog wont learn to sit on this strange word if it isn’t enforced through some means of negative reinforcement.

    There are dogs out there who really really really love to be petted and touched and for those dogs, the example above doesn’t really apply- but how about this? If I were to teach my dog Penny (loves petting) to accept the belly rubs of a robot (let’s say the robot looks nothing like a human), I could just as easily teach her new behaviors by having the robot scratch her belly instead of me (trust me on this- I am nothing but a large hairless monkey with hands to rub her with- as is proven to me everytime she meets a new person and doesn’t listen to a thing I say as long they are petting her). Is Penny working to please me? I think not! Dogs, like all creatures on this planet, behave for reinforcement. It just so happens, that I have opposable thumbs and can give Penny, her reinforcement of choice!

    Crystal Saling, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP

    1. Wow — sometimes I get comments that are worthy of their own posts (including Mary Haight’s clarification of no-kill shelters a little while ago) and this is definitely one of those! So look for it after I get Crystal to clarify a few points for me.


  11. While I will admit here and only here that you are right about that unconditional love myth – I’m going to have to also admit that with my shelter hat on I will blatantly continue to perpetuate that myth as long as it gets dogs adopted – bwahahaha! Oh, these ethical landmines:) As long as dogs still get up to greet people arriving home after work – even if it’s really only to press for their dinner – shelters will use that as “proof” of unconditional love…who made the comment about being opportunists – hee hee! What do you think got dogs out of the backyard and into the house – anthropomorphism and ego:) I’m all for it!

    1. Fair enough, Mary; I’ll keep your secret. Besides, if we judge by human standards, then dogs do love us unconditionally. Yours is just a sin of omission (or definition) 😉

  12. “I could be bleeding on the floor …” I have to disagree. Our guys, Jasmine in particular, are very concerned about all members of their pack. If something is truly wrong, they’ll drop everything and be concerned.

    1. Hey, Jana. Maybe I’m just quibbling about semantics here. You may have a difference experience — and I’m glad you do — but you can’t “disagree” with mine.

  13. With my dogs it’s mornings they don’t care about me, lol! They will groan at me and go right back under the covers. If I were laying here bleeding before noon I’d be in trouble! lol! Most of the time though, even when they are eating they at least acknowledge me even if they are busy. But of course I have velcro puppies. I think the individual temperament of the dog has a hand in this, too. Just like people some dogs seem to be “people” dogs more than others, and therefore possibly more concerned, or empathetic than others.

  14. Such an interesting post. At first, I’d be quick to answer that I’d rather be a dog, but there are so many good points about cats. Always empathetic? Check…This is so true about Gus, which can be dangerous.

    But…then I read the rest of the post, and switch my answer back to dog.

    Great post!

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