How Did Dogs and Humans First “Fall in Love?”
Originally published in slightly different form on January 12, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
In a recent article, Dr. Stanley Coren (author of The Intelligence of Dogs) asks, “Do dogs love people more than they love other dogs,” and tells us his article was sparked by the rediscovery of a study showing that dogs seem to prefer human companionship. 
Humans as Psychological Buffers for Dogs?
The first sentence of that study discusses how some dogs feel when left alone. “Brief involuntary separation of an individual from an object of emotional attachment evokes behavioral and physiological reactions.” The authors then go on to show that when some dogs are left alone in an unfamiliar space, being with a lifelong canine pal has no effect on the dog’s stress levels, but human companionship significantly reduces stress.
Dr. Coren writes “We now have data that suggests that we have selectively bred the domestic dog so that it is strongly biased to love humans (or at least one human) more strongly than it loves other dogs.”
Yet, looked at closely, and in the specific context of how it was done, I think this study really shows that most humans tend to act as stress buffers for their dogs.  It should also be noted that some experts—like Dr. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas—say that dogs actually prefer the company of other dogs to the company of humans.
However, I think Dr. Coren is right in saying that, as a general rule, dogs do seem to be more interested in and in need of the company of humans than other dogs. But why do dogs tend to love us more than other dogs? What exactly do we give our dogs that they can’t get from their canine pals?
Some would say dogs love us because we feed them, pet and cuddle with them, and take them for walks. Their feelings are nothing more than the product of conditioning, an idea that was actually built in to the study (because the human caretaker was assigned the task of taking the dogs on exercise walks, twice a day). So wouldn’t a dog’s love for us be more about conditioning than selective breeding?
Certainly that may be part of it. Yet I’ve often heard clients complain, “I walk the dog, I feed the dog, yet she loves my husband (or wife) more than me!” This suggests that while there may be some positive conditioning involved, there may also be something else going on, something that really is related to the domestication process, as Dr. Coren suggests.
I always do my best to try and see things from the dog’s perspective as much as possible. (This is where Dr. Coren and I differ; he seems to enjoy thinking that dogs are, in many ways, four-legged versions of ourselves.) And, taking the dog’s perspective into account, I think the reasons dogs love us so much is that a) humans are the most behaviorally complex animal on the planet, and b) that dogs are genetically designed to pay close attention to the behavioral patterns of animals they either feel an attraction for or those they’d rather avoid (or both). Then there’s dopamine.
Dopamine: The Salience Detector
The latest research on dopamine—once thought to be a key actor in the brain’s “reward system”—shows that this neurochemical is not just released when good things happen to us, as was originally believed. Yes, it may be released when we eat ice cream or fall in love, but it’s also released when we inadvertently drink sour milk or stub our toes. The brain isn’t rewarding us for drinking sour milk or stubbing our toes. It wants us to remember not to do those things if we can help it. And the human mind runs into a real briar patch when it comes to things that are both pleasurable and dangerous, like nicotine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, even gambling. All of these things can be harmful in large amounts, and yet they create very strong addictions that are very difficult to recover from.
So in reality dopamine gets released when we detect salient, changing patterns in our environment, particularly patterns related to things that either provide some benefit or spell possible harm, or both. Dopamine apparently wants us to pay attention to those features, good and bad, thus its role as a salience detector not necessarily as a reward chemical.
Approach and Avoidance or Attraction and Resistance?
The study Dr. Coren cites refers to humans (as seen through the dog’s eyes) as objects of emotional attachment, a term borrowed from a neo-Freudian discipline called object relations theory. However, I prefer to think in terms of emotional attraction, which is both a physical and emotional process, one that, over time, creates strong feelings of attachment.
The fact is, all animals tend to feel attracted to life-sustaining features of their environments and feel repelled by things they feel are dangerous: they move toward good things (attraction), and move away from bad (resistance).
So elk would be attracted to a stand of low-lying aspen branches while wolves would feel attracted to the elk and have little interest in the aspen leaves. Meanwhile the wolf is an object of resistance to the elk, something to be avoided.
Yet unlike an elk’s attraction for aspen leaves—which is quite simple—a wolf’s attraction for the elk is a double-edged sword because an elk can be up to ten times the size of a wolf, and comes equipped with antlers and hooves, making it potentially dangerous.
As far as the relationship between dogs and humans is concerned, I think we can often stimulate strong feelings of both attraction and resistance.
Falling in Love Is a Dangerous Business
On a certain level, the original dog/human relationship may be similar to the way humans feel when we fall in love. Yes, we feel attracted to the objects of our affections. But we also feel anxious, if not downright trepidatious about the experience, because falling in love makes us completely vulnerable. What if the other person doesn’t feel the same way?
So when our ancestors and our dogs’ ancestors first met up, around 44,000 years ago, there must have been both a mutual attraction and a possible feeling of vulnerability on both sides. And since humans didn’t start despising and killing wolves until we invented agriculture, it’s likely that the mutual attraction we had for canines—which existed long before we began farming and forming permanent settlements—won out over our feelings of vulnerability. In other words, dogs and humans felt a mutual attraction.
So this feeling of attraction to one another, this falling in love, so to speak, also involves pattern recognition. We’re constantly thinking about the loved one’s appearance, their eyes and hair, the sound of their voice, and we’re keenly tuned into their behavioral patterns as well. We want to learn everything we can about our paramours. We study every little thing they do.
So it makes sense that if recognizing changing patterns in the environment is intrinsically rewarding for wolves, then hunting large prey as a group would be more rewarding than hunting small prey, solo, because there are far more patterns to pay attention to: 1) the behavioral patterns of the prey animals, 2) the changing patterns in the terrain, and 3) the behavioral patterns of one’s fellow hunters.
So it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that two species of social predators (humans and wolves), who also happened to share a habitat, might begin to study one another, check out each other’s behavioral patterns, and thus, begin to form some sort of emotional bond.
I’m not saying it’s exactly like falling in love, just that there are similarities.
The Most Behaviorally-Complex Animal on the Planet
So, once dogs began living with us, their love for us was expanded by the fact that we’re the most behaviorally complex animal on the planet. Dogs don’t open doors, they don’t use keys, drive cars, switch lights and appliances on and off, put on clothes, tie their shoes, play musical instruments, sit in front of a computer, point the remote at the TV, whistle absent-mindedly, talk on the phone, and on and on and on. There are so many things that humans do that dogs can’t, and, frankly, couldn’t even imagine doing, that if pattern recognition is one of the things that makes dogs attracted to us, we’re a jackpot for them. And don't kid yourself. They pay a lot of attention to our behavioral patterns.
This also might solve the problem of understanding why the spouse or family member who gives the dog more attention than the other and yet the dog still “loves” that person more. Could it be that the other person—the one the dog is more attracted to—exhibits more interesting patterns of behavior?
It’s hard to know for sure without further research. But I think it’s an idea worth exploring.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) “Behavioral and glucocorticoid responses of adult domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to companionship and social separation,” Tuber, David S; Hennessy, Michael; Sanders, Suzanne; Miller, Julia A., (Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol 110(1), Mar 1996, 103-108.)
2) I think this study shows that humans tend to act as psychological buffers for dogs. And I think this is important for at least two reasons. For one thing, it explains why people who own dogs afflicted with separation anxiety find that getting another dog to keep the first one company doesn’t necessarily assuage the loneliness and pain that dog feels when left alone. As a dog trainer, I also find that acting as an emotional buffer is helpful with dogs who have fear-related issues, from phobias, to panic attacks, to post-traumatic stress. The dog’s rehabilitation always proceeds much quicker and more smoothly if I can succeed at being his or her stress buffer.
3) Many dog owners will tell you that when they take their dogs for a walk, the dog would much rather interact with other dogs rather than with people. Yet, for some dogs it’s the opposite; they ignore other dogs but gravitate towards the humans they meet.
In The Hidden Life of Dogs, Dr. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes, “What do dogs want? Other dogs.” Both are correct, it just depends on the context.