Human beings have long recognized that dogs are faithful companions, but could there be more to this relationship than meets the eye? Until recently, scientists and behaviorists have deemed the bond between man and dog unworthy of study. However, recent reports have begun to show that not only is this relationship different from any human-animal bond, but it also offers unique insight into the psychology and behavior of both species. Only now are we beginning to see the value and complexity inherent in this relationship.
As dog owners, we bond with our canine companions in ways we are unable to with humans and other pets. Our dogs seem to be in tune with our emotions and desires. They are keenly aware of our routines and often seem to be able to predict our actions (car rides, walks, etc.). Clearly there is a deeper level of communication going on. With behavior like this, it’s easy to anthropomorphize our four-legged friends and consider them little furry humans. But have we ever considered that they are viewing us as a dog? According to recent studies, this appears to be true; dogs carry over their dog pack mentality to their interactions with humans.
Centuries ago, dogs were bred from wolves to assist hunter/gatherers in tracking prey, herding and pulling heavy loads. Even after years of domestication, dogs still maintain some of their wolf instincts, namely, pack mentality. Early dogs would travel in packs in order to effectively hunt prey and protect one another from harm. Within these intensely loyal packs, there was a clearly delineated pecking order determined by dominance and submission. Dogs generalize their social instincts to include humans and when they are adopted into a family, they view it as “joining the pack.” In a healthy human/dog relationship, the human is the “pack leader.” As pack leaders, we provide our dogs with food, shelter, exercise and activities. Dogs clearly understand this and respond accordingly with submission. The pack dynamics change drastically in a multi-dog household and a certain pecking order results. The human pack leader still maintains his/her top position in the household, but canine hierarchy results, with one canine becoming “top dog” without resorting to fighting.
Problems can occur when dogs test their boundaries and are not corrected by their pack leaders. Some dogs desire the dominant role in a relationship and will push for more control. If not corrected and taught more appropriate behavior, they may begin to see themselves as dominant and exhibit aggressive behavior. Dog owners owe it to themselves as well as their pets to maintain control in the human/dog relationship. Chaos in the home can result if this is not done properly and promptly, just ask any dog trainer.
Responding to you as pack leader doesn’t mean your canine companion is an unemotional creature with little ability to think on its own. Dogs make keen observations and have the ability to learn from past experiences. They can also read body language and speech tones and respond appropriately. When a dog owner is depressed and feeling low, dogs can pick up on these cues and learn that gravitating to their human owners at these times is beneficial to the both of them. The owner appreciates a gentle lick on the face and a soft head to caress, and the dog loves the attention it receives at these times.
Dogs can also learn to react to human body language. As intelligent beings, they quickly learn to associate nonverbal commands and cues, like pointing, with the desired result of pleasing its master. This ability is put to the test during dog obedience competitions. In order to earn their first obedience “companion dog” (CD) title, dogs must complete in an impressive set of tasks, responding to both verbal and nonverbal cues from its handler.
If taught properly, dogs are capable of learning huge vocabularies as well as nonverbal commands. Teaching your dogs simple voice commands and hand motions can lead to better inter-species communication. Asking “outside?” to a dog that may need to relieve itself will often result in an excited bark and a run for the door. Likewise, a sweeping arm motion and the command, “off” will cause a dog to immediately jump off a bed or couch. “Who’s hungry?” results in a happy dog waiting by his bowl. Get the idea? Much of this type of response doesn’t even come from formal training. It just naturally results from talking to your dog about everyday things and using appropriate body language to enforce what is said verbally.
The bottom line? Dogs love humans because they see us as their leader, provider and protector. We love dogs because of their fierce loyalty and ability to pick up and react to our emotional cues and physical behavior. Together, we forge a symbiotic relationship that transcends species and, here at Dog Vacay, we think that’s a beautiful thing.