Dogs Are the Last True Social Connector

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The first time my little ball of fluff, Lilly, proved her worth as a "connector" was at Law Street Park in San Diego, overlooking a bunch of crappy waves but with the sun shining down on a tattooed blonde girl sitting on the ground. I'm not going to tell you how old I am — I'm old — but from a distance she looked to be maybe 26. She had headphones on and was bopping her head while tapping out texts on her cell phone. After taking her measure, I returned to throw a Frisbee for my Lilly, who is half bichon and half Cavalier King Charles spaniel and the most unlikely of Frisbee dogs ever. She hustled after it, snagged it out of the air, returned it to me panting. I scratched her head and looked up. The tattooed girl had halved the distance between us and sat again and was now looking at me, smiling. Gone were the headphones. Away went the cell phone.

Normally, when it comes to women, I'm about as timid as the common titmouse, but when the girl got up and moved closer yet again, I was on my feet in an instant and ambling her way, Lilly taking the lead.

She spoke first. "So, about the dog," she said.

And since then, time after time, Lilly has proved to be the best opener ever — with women but also with men, kids, and the occasional homeless guy sipping whiskey at dawn.

This all got me to wondering: Why? How can you explain a dog like Lilly leading random strangers to disconnect themselves from cell phones, headphones, tablets, laptops, and fitness trackers to participate in an actual, face-to-face human interaction? In the fully wired world, according to one recent study, the average cell phone user engages in 76 separate phone sessions and 2,167 individual touches of the damn thing a day, not to mention having to attend to the phone's countless beeps, squawks, alerts, and notifications of notifications.

You can tend to those notifications. You can also run into a dog like Lilly who is so captivating that she can instantly transport you back to the technologically unencumbered age of the rotary phone. But what is it about her that makes such wondrous time travel possible?

In 1943, an ethologist named Konrad Lorenz studied the appearance of a bunch of babies, looking for clues to cuteness, which led him to coin the term Kindchenschema. Lorenz's cute taxonomy includes big, wide-set eyes, a compact face with no long protruding nose, chubby cheeks, and a chubby body. Later studies involving brain scans confirmed that when we see one of those maximum-cute babies, the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens floods the body with pleasure-producing dopamine. As it happens, all the attributes of baby Kindchenschema also apply to animals, and Lilly has every one of them in spades. Plus, she can catch that damn Frisbee.

But what's the point of a dog being cute in the first place? A psychology professor named Hal Herzog, author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, had some answers. "It's Darwinism at its purest," he said. "Of the estimated 1 billion dogs on earth, only about 10 percent of them live past that first year. So to survive in a Mexico City garbage dump, say, a dog has to be adopted by a human. And for that to happen, cuteness is absolutely essential. By our selection of the cutest dogs for survival, we're ensuring that their genes keep them cute."

In other words, the chick-magnet success of my 10-year-old Lilly derives mostly from that most basic of needs: everyday survival. It had never occurred to me, if only because she's got the pushover looks of a lapdog. Even so, evolution has made her what she is, which in the fog of cute-doggy attraction has spurred woman after woman to conflate my rather grizzled appearance with that of my dog — so soft, so cuddly, so ready to smile.

But I'm not as shallow as I seem. I'll sometimes let a man-bun-wearing hipster have his smoochy-coochy-coo with her, or I'll lift her up so that walker-pushing ancients can get a nuzzle. I'll even let her change lives.

Late the other afternoon, a toddler barely able to walk waddled in Lilly's direction, uncertainly at first but then with a smile that led to a flood of giggles, complete with a windmill of waving arms. This went on for about 15 minutes, with the child's mom standing off a bit, a frown on her forehead. Finally, the mom came forward, frown turning into a smile.

"My daughter has never laughed before," she said.

"What?"

She nodded. "This is the first time I've ever seen her laugh."

I wanted to meet more girls, but what could I do? The laughing went on for another 25 minutes, day turned to night, and the California blondes went home. More giggles erupted, and that's when I knew for sure that Lilly conquers all — maybe even more than love.