Friend Zone

The Happiness Reports

We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to amuse them.
Evelyn Waugh, 10 June 1963

Do dogs make friends?

We all know that dogs are social animals, but do we make firm friendships? Or do we simply make do?

IMG_3162In fact, researchers are finding more and more evidence that we are more like humans than anyone first thought.[1] We actually have very advanced social skills. Possibly more advanced than a lot of humans we know! But understanding this is very important for all sorts of things, including learning and training, health and welfare, and more. And of course, our social life is the key to our happiness.

But what about the social life of shelter dogs? Can shelter dogs make friends? And if they make friends, does this make shelter life a little easier? Some researchers in Australia and Scotland decided to look into this a bit more closely through a detailed study of pair-housed shelter dogs.[2] The researchers carefully matched and introduced pairs of shelter dogs who then lived together and got to know each other in the kennel environment. But did they make friends?

Shelter life can be very stressful and stress has all sorts of negative impact on a dog’s welfare. As well as behavioural responses, such as withdrawal and barking, stress can increase cortisol as well as compromise the immune system (with different responses in immunoglobulin to acute and chronic stress, making the body less able to fight bacteria and viruses). And what is very interesting indeed is that stress has an impact on cognition and learning. Stress will result in a negative emotional state that actually makes dogs more pessimistic. So dogs play less, cope less well, and basically just give up. Yet another good reason to avoid aversive methods in dog training – they are literally making dogs pessimistic and unhealthy.

For this study, the researchers investigated this pessimistic state through cognitive bias testing and food. And the researchers then looked at this together with the potentially positive impact of company from another dog. The dogs were given a very tasty food in a bowl over a series of cue trials. They received two positive trials (where there was food) and then two negative trials (where there was no food) and then it became random (sometimes there was food and sometimes there wasn’t). And the dogs were observed as to how quickly they ran up to the bowl (optimistic dogs went quickly, but pessimistic dogs went slowly because they didn’t believe that there would be any). It is a bit like tricking a dog with a ball, or with treats in the park. Eventually the dog might lose hope that you will throw the ball or give out a treat. But after a while, a lot of this trickery is enough to make a dog a bit pessimistic. In other words, if a dog gets a lot of ambiguous cues, then they can become quite pessimistic. This would be relevant in other settings as well, such as training.

fullsizeoutput_823The study showed that the dogs spent most of their time with each other making friends through affiliative behaviour. Only a small amount of time was spent in agonistic behaviour, such as threatening behaviour or appeasement behaviour (and even then it was only two of the dogs). So in fact, conflict was quite rare indeed, even if the pair didn’t develop a strong bond.

But when pairs were separated, the dogs spent more time in stereotypic or repetitive behaviours associated with stress and anxiety (such as running and circling). And one dog even became more pessimistic, going up to the bowl even more slowly than before. Calming behaviours like yawning and lip licking did not increase at all. And this seems to make sense, because such signals are perhaps more about communicating with another dog or human (such as when a dog wants to de-escalate a potentially tense situation). And without another dog there, the dog simply had no-one to talk to. The other really interesting observation was that the dogs showed a marked decrease in play after losing their friend. And the effect on play lasted longer than anything else.

IMG_2246The research makes it clear that in the shelter environment, and in any kennel environment, pair housing should be considered. And when it comes to shelters, staff should also give extra special attention to dogs left behind when their friend is adopted. The researchers also noted the potentially positive effect on behaviour through happy human-dog interactions in the shelter environment. Shelter staff obviously will also be very important in the social life of the shelter dog.

So, if the best of friends must part, then the best of shelters will step in to soothe a heavy heart. And the best of shelter staff will be there with some friendship. Let’s face it, shelter dogs are some of the lucky ones. And so are their friends.

Dogs do make friends. So be there with friendship, make a shelter dog smile, and be one of the really lucky ones.


[1] Miklósi Á, Topál J, Csányi V, Comparative social cognition: what can dogs teach us? Animal Behaviour 67 (2004) 995-1004; Phillips Buttner A, Neurobiological underpinnings of dogs’ human-like social competence. Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 71 (2016) 198-214.

[2] Walker JK, Waran NK, Phillips CJC, The effect of conspecific removal on the behaviour and physiology of pair-housed shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 158 (2014) 46-56.

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