When is a dog like a child?
Don’t worry, this isn’t a riddle! Or perhaps it is, because the debate of just what a dog means to us – and what we mean to them – has been hotly debated for generations, and is far from over!
The role that dogs play in our lives has significantly changed, from having a working purpose to largely being that of a companion and emotional support animal. In a way, they are turning into family members. That’s not to say that we ‘think they’re human’ – we’re quite capable of telling them apart – but the way we emotionally react to them – the way our brains and hormonal responses react to their presence – is similar to the way we react towards other loved ones.
I would argue that the best analogy for the modern dog human relationship is that of a parent to child. They live in our family unit. We protect them in a world they don't understand, guard them and guide them. They connect us to the simple childhood joys in life, before adult logic and ritual clouded our emotion. If you’re looking for an analogy it’s much better than master- servant or boss - employee. This is borne out historically too; there's growing evidence that dogs - the first domesticated species - originally lived freely alongside us for mutual benefit rather than being captured and ' kept' - man's best friend rather than servants from the start!
Of course we all like to think our dogs love us as part of our family the same as we love them, but is it true? Can dogs feel something similar in return? While studies show that (like us), dogs can clearly tell apart their human family members from other dogs, and behave differently towards them, does this really mean they don’t bond with us in a way that’s at least similar to their own family bonding? Do modern dogs even form family bonds at all?
Well, the trouble is, it’s hard to know! Because it’s almost impossible to find a scenario where dogs would get the opportunity to form a natural family structure, even if they wanted to! While wolves form family units, are dogs different? What is ‘normal’ to a dog? For example, most ‘natural living’ feral dog packs are actively disbanded by local human populations, they have a very short life expectancy due to human interference and of course have to eke a living off small prey/ scavenging and begging, which sadly encourages early dispersal and ‘break up’ of family units. While it’s likely they’ve adapted to be more open about who they share affection with, it’s impossible to say in these circumstances if the family has been disbanded or expanded.
So maybe it’s time for researchers to look more closely at groups of dogs living WITH humans. One thing I’ve noted from my own canine family ‘pack’ (a pack being in this case a very general description for a group of dogs living together) which is made up of both related and non related woofers – in the majority, the type of relationship depends more upon shared history and personality traits than simple genetics. If they ‘like’ each other, enjoying each other’s time, then they ‘act’ more like family – looking out for each other, being more tolerant of each other and showing affection towards each other. So it seems to me that dogs do share affection and a degree of loyalty within their living unit. The best human analogy of this logically seems to be a ‘family’.
But are we included in this family? I think evidence is growing that a dog’s brain and biological systems ‘light up’ when interacting with humans in a similar (if not identical) way to when they are engaging with other family members. They show tolerance and affection and protective behaviour for humans they ‘like’. They may know we’re different to dogs, and are to be treated differently, but that doesn’t mean they can’t feel affectionate family emotions towards us in the same way we do for them.
So I’d like to believe in all probability we’re not kidding ourselves when we call our pups ‘furkids’. In a practical sense, we are family. They, like us, accept that we’re not ‘the same’ – but they love us non the less! In fact, we’re the perfect family – where not even species, let alone race or gender or beliefs or other divisive category – can prevent us from finding mutual ground and sharing love and affection amongst each other.