Behaviour

A Dog’s Best Friend

The Happiness Reports

Are humans a dog’s best friend?

IMG_1731Dogs are pretty special. That much is obvious. But one thing that stands out about dogs is the way we like to live with humans. Not just be fed by them, not just be walked by them, but actually live and interact with them.

This has huge implications for all sorts of discussions – domestication, intelligence, and our social life for starters.

Researchers have been looking into the relationship between dogs and humans for a while now. And they have been thinking about whether the bond is a kind of attachment, a bond far beyond just a strategy to get food. In other words, do dogs look at their humans as special, as a secure base? And does this make us happy?

John Bowlby really pioneered the interest into the attachment bond in the 1950s, followed by Mary Ainsworth in studies of the mother-child relationship in the 1960s. The attachment bond is largely understood as having certain key features: seeking to be near each other; the bond as a secure base from which to explore the world more confidently; IMG_8745the bond as a safe haven; and experiencing distress when separated.[1]

But what does attachment theory mean for dogs? Well, researchers have found lots of evidence to show that a similar attachment relationship develops between dog and their humans.[2] In fact, this relationship is basically central to the unique and wonderful social skills of dogs.[3] 

First of all, we want to be near you. In fact, the next time someone tells you dogs are attention-seeking, thank them! Because attention-seeking behaviour is actually evidence of an advanced and well-developed social system![4]

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And  Grand Human too

And with a good human comes a confident dog. We dogs look at our humans like a secure base.[5] And so if a dog enjoys a positive friendship with their human, this gives them the confidence to learn and interact and play!

And if we do face something worrying, we look to our humans for comfort, as a safe haven.[6] So give us that comfort. You can’t reinforce fear of fireworks by giving us the reassurance we seek, but you can reinforce our friendship.

And it probably isn’t even necessary to mention that dogs sometimes suffer from separation-related distress.

Yes, we are definitely capable of getting attached!

And the wonderful thing is that researchers have found that the feelings are mutual.[7] When there is a happy relationship between dog and human then there is a significant rise in the levels of beta-endorphin (associated with reducing stress, among other things) in both the dog and the human after positive interactions.[8] Our relationship makes us  both happy! And it’s the same story with oxytocin levels, which have been shown to double after positive interactions between dogs and humans.[9] But the really amazing news is that, whereas stress inhibits learning, beta-endorphin has been shown to be associated with learning and memory retention.[10] So we are happier if you keep things positive, and we learn better as well![11]

Obviously, this special friendship has really important implications for training. The best training should be a social relationship, not one of coercion and aversive methods, if you are going to get the absolute best learning from each other.[12] It seems to be pretty clear that the better the relationship with the human, the more the dog will look to the human IMG_1987for information and learning, and not just food, shelter, protection, and other basic assistance.[13] We are genuinely communicating.

And because of this special friendship, humans help dogs make friends with other dogs as well. Research has shown that dogs are more confident when making friends with other dogs if they have a friendly human there also.[14] It’s all part of expanding our social networks!

Which raises another question. Do humans become family? Well, there is certainly research into human relationships that says that friendships can become like kinship, or family.[15] And because we dogs are so like humans in our social competence, I guess that settles it. Our humans aren’t just our best friends, they’re family.

But you probably knew that already.

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[1] Ainsworth MDS, Object relations, dependency and attachment: a theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship. Child Development 40 (1969) 969-1025.

[2] Payne Palmer R & Custance D, A counterbalanced version of Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure reveals secure-base effects in dog-human relationships, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 109 (2008) 306-319.

[3] Topál J & Gásci M, Lessons we should learn from our unique relationship with dogs: an ethological approach. In Crossing Boundaries, Birke L & Hockenhull J (eds), 2012, 168-187.

[4] Odendaal JSJ & Meintjes RA, Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour between Humans and Dogs. The Veterinary Journal 165 (2003) 296-301.

[5] Payne Palmer R & Custance D, A counterbalanced version of Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure reveals secure-base effects in dog-human relationships, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 109 (2008) 306-319.

[6] Gácsi M, Topál J, Miklósi Á, Dóka A, Csányi V, Attachment behavior in adult dogs (Canis familiaris) living a rescue centers: Forming new bonds. Journal of Comparative Psychology 115 (2001) 423-431; Payne E, DeAraugo J, Bennett P, McGreevy P, Exploring the existence and potential underpinnings of dog-human and horse-human attachment bonds. Behavioural Processes 125 (2016) 114-121.

[7] Zilcha-Mano S, Mikulincer M, Shaver PR, Pets as safe havens and secure bases: The moderating role of pet attachment orientations. Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 571-580.

[8] Odendaal JSJ & Meintjes RA, Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour between Humans and Dogs. The Veterinary Journal 165 (2003) 296-301.

[9] Odendaal JSJ & Meintjes RA, Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour between Humans and Dogs. The Veterinary Journal 165 (2003) 296-301.

[10] McGaugh J & Roozendaal B, Memory Modulation. Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, 2017.

[11] Shen Y & Li R, The role of neuropeptides in learning and memory: possible mechanisms, Medical Hypotheses 45 (1995) 529-538; Brown RE, An Introduction to Neuroendocrinology, 1994.

[12] Phillips Buttner A, Neurobiological underpinnings of dogs’ human-like social competence: How interactions between stress response systems and oxytocin mediate dogs’ social skills. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 71 (2016) 198-214.

[13] Phillips Buttner A, Neurobiological underpinnings of dogs’ human-like social competence: How interactions between stress response systems and oxytocin mediate dogs’ social skills. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 71 (2016) 198-214.

[14] Posluns J, Anderson RE, Walsh CJ, Extraverts make new friends: Multiple indicators reflect successful interactions among unfamiliar dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 9 (2014) e1-e19.

[15] Ackerman JM, Kenrick DT, Schaller M, Is friendship akin to kinship? Evolution and Human Behavior 28 (2007) 365-374.

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