Dogs and Humans, A Love Story.
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 here, acclaimed dog expert 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.1
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.2 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.3
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 (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 try to 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 may be 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).
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 important neurochemical is not just released when good things happen to us, as was previously 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: 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 the reality is that 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. So dopamine wants us to pay attention to those features, thus its role as a salience detector not as a reward chemical.
Approach/Avoidance vs Attraction/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 that, over time, creates 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 know are dangerous: they move toward good things (attraction), and they move away from bad things (resistance).
For example, a stand of low-lying aspen branches would be highly attractive to elk, but hold no interest for wolves. Wolves would feel more attracted to the elk than to the aspen trees. For the elk, the wolf is an object of repulsion or resistance, something to be avoided. But oddly enough, unlike an elk’s attraction for aspen leaves—which is quite simple—a wolf’s attraction for the elk is double-edged: the elk is both very desirable but, since an elk may be up to ten times the size of a wolf, and comes equipped with antlers and sharp hooves, it’s also potentially dangerous.
As far as dogs are concerned, I think we’re like the elk are for the wolf; we stimulate strong feelings of both love and danger, 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?
When our ancestors and our dogs’ ancestors first met up, 44,000 years ago, there must have been both a mutual attraction and a feeling of vulnerability, the perfect recipe for either falling in love or attempting to put the other’s lights out. (Our prisons are full of people who loved their victims to death, so to speak.) And since humans didn’t start despising and killing wolves until we began to put down roots, both literally and figuratively, when 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, we actually fell in love with one another.
Falling in love, human style, 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 them. We study every little thing they do.
If recognizing changing patterns in the environment is intrinsically rewarding, then hunting large prey as part of a group would be more rewarding than hunting small prey, solo, because group predators, like wolves and humans, have to pay attention to more patterns: 1) the behavioral patterns of the prey, 2) the changing patterns in 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, 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 an 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
Then, once dogs began living with us, their love was expanded on 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.
This also might solve the problem of understanding the spouse or family member who gives the dog all the so-called positively-reinforcing things possible—feeding the dog, taking it on walks, playing with it, spending more time cuddling, etc—, and yet the dog still “loves” the other 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?”
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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 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.