Dogs love you, and your wheels

Car & Driver contributing editor John Pearley Huffman writes on something possibly inspired by a Nissan truck commercial of old:

Alabama, the author’s Husky, will jump into a truck bed before the tailgate is even down. Another staffer’s Newfie dances around as if her paws were in a frying pan and runs in circles when she hears the word “ride.” Only dogs seem to love cars as much as humans. There’s little (or no) science investigating why, so we invited the experts to speculate.

Dogs experience the world more through scent than sight. Where a human’s nose has up to 5 million  olfactory receptors, a dog’s can have up to 300 million. No wonder they like to stick their snoots out the window and into the wind. “I’m not sure they’re getting a high, per se,” says Dr.  Melissa Bain, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, who researches animal behavior and welfare. “But they are getting a lot of input in higher speed.”

Dr. Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, says the wind blast may be a sort of sensory overload. “It’s the equivalent of watching an incredible movie or reading the latest issue of Car & Driver,” he says (with a little coaching). “There’s so much information they’re taking in, it’s just ‘Whoa.’ Then again, the simpler explanation could e that it just feels good. And it could also  be both.”

The breeze is just part of it, he says. “In most places where you find wolves today, they have to range pretty far. They’ve evolved to go places. They likely enjoy going places. It’s not going to do much good if you’re selected to not enjoy that thing you need to do to survive.” He says it’s possible dogs know the car is going somewhere, “a new place to explore, and there might be other dogs there.” At the very least, he says, “dogs associate the car with a good outcome: ‘When I get in this thing, good things happen.’ At the most they understand that they’re going somewhere.” …

Most of all, he says, dogs are pack animals, social animals. But domestication as tweaked the formula. “If you give that dog a choice between being with a person or with other dogs, dogs prefer to be with people,” Hare says. “They’re the most successful mammals besides humans in the history of the planet,” he continues. “The trust bond with humans has been a huge boost to the domesticated wolves who live with us. Dogs have evolved to be geniuses at taking advantage of the human tool.” It’s dogs’ desire to be with us that makes them eager driving companions. … In other words dogs love cars because they love us.


This (photo taken with my cellphone and blown up) is Max, our PitBasenHerd (also known as the World’s Largest Basenji, given that Basenji are beagle-size, and Max certainly is not), who one day managed to con Mrs. Presteblog into letting him stick his head out the passenger-side window of the van. Now, of course, he wants to stick his head out the window whenever he’s in the van, regardless of weather. (The driver must make sure the power windows are off, lest Max step on the switch and lower the window all the way.)

Our other dog, Leo el Chihuahua obesidad mórbida, sits on the driver’s lap and thinks he’s steering the vehicle. He formerly scratched on the window on the passenger side until the driver let down the window.

Leo and Max are keeping up a tradition started by our two Welsh springer spaniels, Puzzle and Nick, who clamored to go with us wherever we went. Unfortunately for them, kids take up more space and attention, so Leo and Max have less vehicular travel than Puzzle and Nick did.

We once had a car small enough that I could put my arm over the passenger-side front seat. Nick, who often sat in the middle of the back seat, would hang his head over my arm, fall asleep and start snoring while sitting. That worked until my arm fell asleep and I had to move it.

This time of year I am reminded of a Saturday in which the number of high school teams our newspaper had to cover exceeded my ability to cover them. On Saturday morning, I took one of our dogs with me and covered a girls gymnastics sectional meet, then a boys basketball regional final game, while Mrs. Presteblog took the other dog and covered a different boys game. We met in location number four for that night’s girls sectional final game. Puzzle and Nick had no idea where they were going, but didn’t care.

That was back in our pre-child days, when our dogs went most places we went in vehicles, including on overnight trips and to our cut-your-own Christmas tree source. Earlier that year, because there was one game that had to be covered in order to have a sports page that week, we drove to Beloit for a boys basketball holiday tournament game. Since the team we were covering won, the four of us went back to Beloit the next night.

When Mrs. Presteblog flew to Guatemala via Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, we stayed the previous night at a hotel near the airport, since her flight left at 6 a.m. (I don’t remember if the hotel allowed pets or not.) I parked our car in an underground garage. When I returned, I found a note on the car criticizing me for keeping our “poor babbies” in a locked car, despite the fact that (1) they had been there for all of an hour (2) in a covered garage (3) before sunrise (4) with the windows cracked. (Irrelevant aside: That was the same day that John F. Kennedy Jr. made his last flight.)

It wasn’t an overnight trip, but we once went to Door County on a summer day. We stopped at a beach on the Green Bay side, and watched the dogs jump off a seaweed-covered boat ramp. Puzzle had bad back hips due to dysplasia, but powerful front legs and chest. That, however, failed to prevent her from not being able to stop and, though I don’t think she intended to, skid off the ramp into the water. Later, they discovered the joys of rolling in dead fish, and their owners discovered the non-joys of driving 90 minutes back home in a car full of dogs smelling of dead fish.


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