Humans and dogs have had a special bond for thousands of years—we see it in the way dogs work, play, and live with us. Most experts agree that this relationship developed when the wolf, the dog’s ancestor, and human came in contact with each other. Some wolves, for unknown reasons, attached themselves to this strange two-legged species and from that early contact, dogs as we have come to know them evolved.
Dogs Love Us, They Really Love Us
No one disputes the clear bond dogs have with us and there have been many studies that explore this attachment. Some researchers reason that it has to do with the dog’s cognitive abilities, but others believe it has less to do with intelligence and more to do with friendliness and sociability. Some researchers have used the term “hypersociability” to describe this trait in canines.
Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to follow what goes on in a dog’s brain during interactions with humans. He found that a dog’s reward center is as active when the dog is praised as when they’re given a hot dog. And we all know how much dogs love hot dogs! In additional research, Dr. Berns demonstrated that some dogs even prefer their owners to food if they’re given the choice. He also found a similarity between the part of a dog’s brain that lights up when they hear their owner’s voice and the same area in our brains that lights up when we’re around someone or something we love.
Dr. Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University, is a proponent of the emotions-over-cognitive-ability school of thought. In his book “Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You,” he makes the argument that a dog has the ability to connect emotionally with other species. He calls it “interspecies love” and thinks that at some point in their evolution, dogs experienced genetic changes that made them friendly toward other species.
Is the Dog-Human Bond Unique?
This is where we may disappoint some of you dog lovers out there: it’s not only humans that dogs bond with. Dr. Wynne—along with Princeton biologist Bridgett vonHoldt, and other researchers—found that dogs have certain genes that, in humans, are associated with the rare genetic disorder Williams-Beuren syndrome, a symptom of which is “indiscriminate friendliness.”
One thing that is clear is that dogs can and will bond with other animals if they are raised with them. Raise a puppy with a goat and he’ll bond with goats, for example. Biologists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger documented examples of puppies that were raised with sheep bonding with the sheep.
Bill Costanzo at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center in San Angelo, Texas conducts real-life research into the bonding process. He raises puppies to become good Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) and studies the factors that lead to success. At about three months old, potential LGD puppies are placed in bonding pens with whatever species will be under their future protection. The term “pen” is misleading here, since each one is a fenced-in field roughly one acre in size. Once they’ve successfully bonded, they’re moved to larger pastures along with the animals that will be in their charge. “LGDs can be bonded to almost any species,” Costanzo said in an interview with the Department of Animal Science. “They also do a great job when bonded to poultry. Free-range poultry operations in California are using dogs to guard against predators.”
The owners of Black Mesa Ranch in Arizona have written extensively about the LGDs that have bonded with, herded, and protected their goats. They describe breeds that have been more successful than others, like the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, and give a history of some of the LGDs that have protected their herd of Nubian goats as well as some sheep, cattle, and poultry.
Dr. Stanley Coren is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and has researched and written extensively about dogs, including his book, “Why Does My Dog Act That Way?” He believes that a reason for this interspecies acceptance is that we humans have, over centuries, bred dogs to form strong attachments, which naturally spill over to other species.
Dr. Coren also posits that pheromones play a part. Young mammals give off pheromones—a “baby smell”—that can make female dogs respond instinctively as if the young ones were their own puppies. This creates a strong maternal-child bond that can last a lifetime.
There’s also a very obvious reason a dog may bond with another type of animal: the two are raised together. Animals form their strongest bonds when they’re very young, so if a dog is raised with a baby of another species, it makes sense that they’ll bond to each other. The connection could be even stronger than later learning or other instinctual behavior.
As of now, the scientific community is divided on the factors that make dogs so attached. Some believe it’s their cognitive ability to understand and communicate with humans. But there’s compelling evidence that this is an emotional bond more than a cognitive one. One of the factors that makes a strong argument for emotional attachment is the ease and willingness with which dogs bond with other species. Is it true love and empathy? That’s not clear. According to Dr. Coren, dogs have the same emotional maturity as a two- to three-year-old toddler, and empathy often takes a few more years in human children. But it’s very clear that dogs can feel attached to and protective of many others species, even penguins.
Who knows what further research will discover. And dog lovers, don’t despair—your dog doesn’t love you any less just because she’s attached to the kitten next door or the cows in the barn.