Man’s Best Friend: The Science Behind Our Fascination with Sully

Sully in front of the casket of George H.W. Bush
UH assistant professor Cameron Buckner says there are some deep similarities between human grief and what Sully and other animals go through when they lose and owner or caretaker. Photo: Twitter/@jgm41
Sully, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton
Bush and Sully’s time together was brief, but according to those closest to the late president, they had a deep, emotional bond. Photo: Twitter/@GeorgeHWBush

As the nation celebrated the extraordinary life of George H.W. Bush, his service dog Sully captured hearts. A photo of the yellow Labrador Retriever stretched out in front of the president’s flag-draped casket went viral in a tweet from longtime Bush spokesman Jim McGrath. Later in the week, it was a picture-perfect moment of man’s best friend celebrating the man who was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

During that Washington service, President Bush’s pastor, Rev. Russell Levenson of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, cemented Sully’s fame further, noting he had “gotten more press than the president in recent days."

A Very Old Friend, Indeed

The relationship between Sully and his master exemplifies the special connection that exists between humans and dogs, one that can be traced back to ancient relationships, evolution and science according to Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. Buckner researches animal cognition, specifically the psychology and neuroscience of animal thought.

“Dogs present a particularly interesting case, because we know dogs and humans have co-evolved for a very long period of time,” said Buckner. “We are both mammals and we share a lot of the same brain areas responsible for emotional processing.” Plus, the co-existence of man and dog over the generations has eliminated incompatibility, Buckner said.

Genetic analyses suggest that dogs split off from great wolves at least 30,000 years ago, and were probably fully domesticated in China at least 15,000-16,000 years ago. Buckner says for the past 10,000 years dogs have been well-established figures in almost every human society. As a result, dogs are very attuned to human social cues.

“They follow our gaze much more effectively than other animals. They are sensitive to our emotional states, which is why they make such effective service animals,” says Buckner.

Do Dogs Grieve? Maybe. Kinda.

dogtips3.pngSully became President Bush’s service dog in June, following the passing of the former First Lady Barbara, his wife of 73 years, in April. Though President Bush’s and Sully’s time together was brief, they had a deep, emotional bond according to those closest to the late president. In fact it seems, from those photo-perfect moments, that Sully is grieving with the rest of the nation, but Buckner stops short of saying it is grief as humans experience it.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say a dog has a concept of death or explicitly understands that the owner has passed on, but they make such good service animals because they are so intuitive,” says Buckner. “There are some deep similarities to human grief as an emotional state and what Sully and other animals in a similar situation are going through.”

When it comes to grieving, humans cope by talking and conceptualization, and often animals help people through difficult times. Dogs lack those coping mechanisms, so companions can expect stress behaviors and need to be patient during transitional times. Pet companions can also provide dogs with other tools to help them cope with the loss of an owner or caregiver, or for any other situation that may cause the animal stress.

It’s not that complicated. Or is it?

“Dogs are not as complicated as humans,” says Bucker. “There is something refreshing for humans about having an animal you can have a deep emotional connection with that is not too complicated.”

Bucker says there is still much to understand about what’s happening in the minds of animals. It’s one of the reasons he’s drawn to the field of animal cognition, where he has made significant scientific breakthroughs.

“There’s a lot of amazing discoveries of advanced cognition in animals and emotional similarities to humans—and in a lot ways we might not have expected. It’s an area where new discoveries are being found every week. It’s a very exciting area to think about, but also a tricky one.”