Humans and dogs have coexisted for thousands of years. In fact, some scientists believe that the co-evolution of humans and dogs is one of the things that allowed early humans to survive and thrive to produce the humans of today.
But whilst we know a lot more about our canine companions than ‘Ugg’ the Caveman, the way they think is still a mystery. Why do dogs stick to humans? Do dogs love us? Or think we’re their parents? Do they know we’re not dogs? We’re going to take a look at what we know about the human-dog bond and the way dogs think.
How did Dogs become Dogs?
Although nobody knows for sure how or when dogs were domesticated, there are some things we’ve been able to work out. The first burial of a human and his dog together is dated at around 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. How that relationship happened is anybody’s guess.
We also have to guess at how dogs evolved. Studies with wolves and silver foxes have shown that the friendly behaviour we associate with dogs cannot merely come about by taming. Even a litter of wolves raised by hand remains naturally fearful of new humans. Their pups aren’t tame so it seems unlikely that the first dogs were wolf pups raised by humans. This is especially unlikely when we consider that wolves have been universally hated and reviled throughout history. They also eat a lot. You have to remember that these are people that hadn’t yet discovered farming. They didn’t plan much for the future, so spending time, energy and precious food to rear wolf cubs on the off chance they were useful seems a bit out of character.
In fact, current science suggests that wolves domesticated themselves. Only the wolves that were the most sociable would have had the guts to approach a human camp. If they were more friendly they were less likely to get chased off. These wolves probably got extra food by virtue of being nearby, so they survived to breed. Effectively self-selecting for friendliness and sociability. It takes about 40 generations of purposefully breeding the friendliest silver fur foxes to get domestication. In the ‘wild’, without purposeful breeding from humans, it probably took 100 generations or more. But eventually wolves became more and more dog-like.
What do Dogs think of Humans?
Unlike wolves and other wild animals, dogs are naturally attracted to humans. Experiments conducted by Brian Hare showed that domestication causes animals to have a distinct interest in what we’re doing, and also what we’re trying to say. Wolves do not follow human gestures (such as pointing) as well as dogs do. Wild silver foxes kept for the fur trade are too scared of humans to care what we do with our hands – but the domesticated version seems to understand that everything we do has a purpose, and they watch closely. Similarly, in one study dogs and socialised wolves were presented with an unsolvable task. On realising they can’t solve it, dogs looked to humans – but wolves did not, no matter how good their socialisation. This suggests that dogs look to humans for guidance, whereas wolves raised like dogs do not.
Do Dogs think we are Dogs?
I think we can be confident that dogs know we’re not dogs. After all, those amazing noses can smell the difference. And O’Hare’s work showed that dogs are naturally more sociable with humans than they are with other dogs – they’ll approach, wagging and interested, and often choose the human over another dog. What we don’t know, however, is what dogs ‘think’ about us. Are we just the ‘strange upright people that have food’ or are we ‘fun to be around’ or are we ‘safety’?
Some people ask if dogs think we are their parents. It’s certainly true that dogs, when scared, often look to their owners for guidance- just like children do. But it seems to me that dogs would be able to smell that they’re not the same species as we are, and that’s where this theory comes unstuck.
Do Dogs Love Us?
It’s often said that dogs give us unconditional love, but is it true? Unfortunately, that’s hard to say – do dogs even know what love is? The good news is that science has shown that dogs get a surge of oxytocin – the ‘love’ hormone – when they interact with humans – phew! Another group of scientists trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine, then let them smell the smells of other dogs, of unfamiliar humans, and of their owners. And when they smelled their owners, each dog showed an activation response in one part of their brain – the Caudate Nucleus, a.k.a the ‘reward centre’. They didn’t get this response with any other scent. So, that’s another piece of evidence that they might love us.
But that’s where science stops, and then we have to make our own conclusions. Personally, I like to think that our dogs know we aren’t dogs – but they love us anyway.