Happy 18,000th Anniversary to you and your canine companion! Humans and dogs have been living in a close relationship for at least this long. During this time, humans have been consciously or unconsciously breeding dogs for the traits they want. One result is that dogs show a natural deference towards humans. But what else makes this relationship tick?
There are really two factors to consider in describing this partnership. The first variable is whether or not the relationship is a healthy one. In a healthy human-dog relationship, both species benefit physically.
Cortisol is a hormone that indicates stress. Humans and dogs in a healthy relationship will have lower levels of cortisol when they interact¹ (Schoberl et al. 2015). Oxytocin is a hormone important in social and family bonding. It’s associated with feelings of fondness and trust. Both humans and dogs will have higher levels of this pleasant hormone when they interact happily.
These changes only take a few minutes to occur, so if you’re feeling stressed, you can spend a moment petting your dog and instantly feel a little bit better. What’s more, so will your dog!
The other aspect to consider is whether the human-dog relationship is functional. In this case, “functional” means that the dog understands and follows the human’s commands. You might expect that these two things go together, but more research shows² (Payne et al. 2015; PDF) this isn’t always the case.
Are You and Your Dog a Good Match?
How Do Dogs Learn?
Dogs are highly aware of what humans say and do. This allows dogs to be trained to help humans in a variety of jobs such as working livestock, providing security, and helping the disabled.
Training usually involves rewards, but you must realize a training reward doesn’t have to be a treat. It can be a scratch behind the ears, a quick game of fetch, or anything your dog enjoys. Because your dog is likely to remember what happened just before he was rewarded, the timing of any reward is very important. After receiving a reward, your dog is likely to repeat what happened just before that.
Poor timing is a common training mistake. If you don’t want your dog to scratch up the front door, don’t grab the leash for a walk when he scratches or he will probably do it again. Rewarding your dog appropriately requires awareness and expert timing.
Rewarding or punishing a dog to shape the desired behaviors is a traditional and proven training method, but exciting new research shows that social learning is another effective way to train your dog.
Social learning is when learning takes place by observing and imitating others. It was once thought that only humans were capable of social learning, but it is now proven that animals including wolves and dogs can learn in this way as well.
Wolves are more likely to learn when imitating members of their own species, but dogs can be trained to imitate humans to learn a new behavior. This method is sometimes called “Do As I Do” or “DAID” training.
“Do As I Do” works just as well for teaching simple tricks as the older training methods, and it works better than other methods at teaching more complicated behaviors. Maybe you can teach your dog to pick up his own toys, using this type of dog training!
Of course, the first step in this training is to teach your dog to understand that a particular command means he should imitate what you just did, but once he understands this, the sky – or rather, his doggy brain – is the limit.
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How Do Dogs View Humans?
You may have heard it said that dogs think of their human owners as the leaders of the pack, but studies show this may not be true³ (Berns et al. 2015). A dog taken to an unfamiliar place will have lower levels of stress hormones if he’s with a familiar human, but being with a familiar dog won’t have the same reassuring effect. This shows that dogs view humans differently than they view other dogs.
Dogs have an “attachment relationship” with humans that is similar to the attachment infants have to their parents. This means your dog craves not only food but also your affection. Dogs look to humans as sources of food, safety, and information about their environment (such as whether to be curious or afraid).
Dogs want to be near their humans, as you probably already know if your dog follows you around the house. Some dogs may suffer from separation stress. If this is your dog, his anxiety may cause misbehavior when you’re away.
Your dog sees you as a source of safety and security, and will be less stressed and more willing to explore when you are near.
Being aware of this can help you to be sensitive to your dog’s needs. For example, if you need to leave your dog with a new dog sitter, it would help to visit the new place with your dog so he can feel safe enough to explore the new area comfortably. This will reduce the stress he feels when it’s time to say goodbye.
The level of attachment a dog shows towards his owner is not necessarily a measure of how well the relationship is working. For example, sometimes an intense attachment can be a result of insecurity in the relationship.
Your behavior can affect how your dog feels and acts. Dogs are highly attuned to human feelings, especially those of their owners. For example, a dog will notice how his owner feels when deciding how to act in a new situation. If you are calm and unworried, your dog is likely to be more relaxed, too.
For a less obvious example, a dog may respond to his owner’s subconscious feelings towards a new person, and react with friendliness, fear, or aggression. Many pet owners will say they trust their dog’s assessment of people, but it’s possible their dogs were only acting out the owner’s own hidden feelings.
How Do You View Your Dog?
Sociologist David Blouin studied owners’ relationships with their dogs, and found that their views of their dog tend to fall into one of three categories⁴ (Blouin, 2015):
1. Those with humanistic views see their dogs as surrogate humans and value them mainly for the love and affection they provide. If you call your dog your “fur baby” you fall into this category.
2. People with protectionistic views of their pets see animals as separate from humans with their own interests. Their dogs aren’t their children, but are their companions. People with protectionistic views have a high regard for and interest in animals in general, not just as pets.
3. Owners with dominionistic views of their dogs see their dogs as useful and often valued animals, but are not sentimental about them. If your dog has a job and lives outside, you probably have a dominionistic view of the relationship. Your dog may be good at following your commands, but you and your dog may be missing out on the stress-reducing health benefits of a closer emotional relationship.
The Myth of Guilt
Most owners overestimate their dog’s cognitive abilities, especially by interpreting their dog’s distress at displeasing the owner as “guilt.” In one research study, dogs were told by their owners not to eat a treat, then were left alone with the treat⁵ (Horowitz, 2009).
Later, the owners returned and scolded their dogs, although they didn’t know whether the dogs had eaten the treat or not. The dogs that had obeyed their owners and managed not to eat the treat looked even guiltier than the dogs that had disobeyed.
Ever notice how quickly after a scolding your dog becomes happy again?
He isn’t going to lie awake at night worrying about his poor behavior. He was just upset because you were upset with him, and now he’s happy because you seem to feel better.
Dogs live in the moment, so guilt is off their radar.
The message here is not to assume your dog understands why you’re upset just because he looks “guilty.” He could easily have misbehaved without realizing (or without remembering in time) that you would be displeased.
Human overestimation of dogs’ understanding can result in unrealistic expectations, conflict, and harm to the relationship. Don’t assume your dog knows what you do or don’t want. Understanding this point may open the door to successful training.
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Building a Healthy Relationship With Your Dog
Dogs learn best when happy and moderately alert (midway on the spectrum between “bored” and “totally stressed out”). If your dog is receiving your attention and affection regularly and feels safe, he is much more likely to be a happy dog that is ready to learn.
It’s critical to spend time with engaging with your dog. Remember your dog doesn’t think of you as another dog. He may (or may not, according to his temperament) be very happy to have a canine companion, but no one can replace you in his eyes.
Dogs used in herding, hunting, agility, or dog shows may develop an especially close relationship with their trainer, due to the level of human-dog engagement needed for these activities⁶ (Bennett et al. 2007). To take advantage of this, find activities both you and your dog can both enjoy.
Teaching your dog to catch a Frisbee, run an agility course, or any other training can help to bring you closer together, as long as you don’t take it so seriously that your dog is stressed out by a dominionistic attitude on your part.
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So, ARE You and Your Dog a Good Match?
To answer this question, we need to consider human personality for a moment. Human personalities are often rated according to the degree they express the “Big Five” characteristics⁷ (Digman, 1999):
- Openness (open-minded, curious)
- Conscientiousness (organized, dependable)
- Extraversion (outgoing, social)
- Agreeableness (affable, tolerant, kind)
- Neuroticism (anxious, irritable, moody)
Neuroticism is correlated with poor “dogmanship,” or training ability. The dogs of trainers with high neuroticism usually don’t follow their commands as well as the dogs of other trainers.
However, if you are emotionally troubled, it isn’t all bad news. Sure, your dog may not have learned as many tricks as your neighbor’s dog, but more evidence shows the dogs with owners rated high for neuroticism find their owners very attractive⁸ (Wedl et al. 2010; PDF). The relationship usually shows signs of being particularly close, with owners considering their dogs to be an important part of their social support.
If you’ve ever heard of “gardeners” and “flowers” in a relationship, the dogs of owners who rate high for neuroticism are likely to fill the role of “gardener,” forming an intense attachment in which they support their owners.
The dogs benefit as well, showing particularly low levels of cortisol stress hormone. In the dog’s world, it’s nice to be needed.
Owners rated high for openness and agreeableness were happiest with their relationships with their dogs⁹ (Cavanaugh et al. 2010). Dogs of confident owners show more attachment behaviors, behaving as a child with a parent. These owners may be more like “gardeners”, able to bring out the best in their dogs during training, with the dogs depending on their owners emotionally.
In addition to considering the effects of human personality, it’s important for the activity levels and creativity levels of the owner and the dog to be a good match as well. When owners and dogs think alike in these areas, the owners are more satisfied with their relationship with their pets.
Some directions for future dog research include finding tools and methods to improve dog-human “matchmaking” into compatible pairs (Tinder for dogs, anyone?). Scientists would also like to learn to help “high risk” pairs by identifying successful dog-human relationships and figuring out behaviors that help the relationships to work.
The Bottom Line
It’s worth it to invest in your relationship with your dog. Spend time engaging with your dog, and don’t make the mistake of assuming human-style motivations for his behavior. Your dog will forgive your faults and may even love and admire you all the more.
Keep a positive attitude towards your furry friend. Remember, both you and your dog will benefit physiologically and psychologically with lower levels of stress and closer bonding in a healthy human-dog relationship.
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