Five Amazing Facts About the Human-Dog Relationship
You probably think you and your dog have a special connection, as if your canine family member can read your thoughts and know how you feel. You actually may be on to something, and the fantastic, science-based documentary, NOVA’s Dogs Decoded, showcases how that connection may be as real as you think. Diving into the science behind the bond between us and our canine buddies, Dogs Decoded is an enlightening documentary that probes at the question of why we are so attached to our dogs – and why they are to us. I’ve compiled my five favorite points from the documentary, but I highly recommend you give it a watch yourself if you have not already.
Dogs can read our minds…sort of
More accurately, dogs can read our eyes. You may not notice, but you instinctively look at other peoples’ eyes to help determine their current emotional state. In fact, you probably look at a person’s right eye. When brought into the lab, dogs showed the same tendency to gravitate towards a human’s right eye. They do not do this with other dogs or with inanimate objects. This research suggests that dogs are are trying to get a sense of how the humans around them are feeling. “Being able to detect whether somebody is angry or potentially going to be harmful to them, you could understand that there may be a biological advantage in being able to read people’s emotions,” said Professor Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln in Dogs Decoded.
Humans can identify a dog’s emotions through its bark
As much as we love to fantasize about dogs being able to talk to us directly – Dug from Up being the best interpretation of this idea – we are actually surprisingly good at being able to determine what a dog is thinking through its bark. Researchers brought in human subjects and played audio recordings of dogs barking in different situations, including a stranger approaching, being left alone, and an out-of-reach toy. Humans fared surprisingly well in being able to identify what was happening to the dog in the respective recordings, especially when it came to vocal displays of aggression, loneliness, and playfulness.
What’s most interesting is that wolves, which are nearly genetically identical to dogs, only bark as a warning. This suggests that during domestication, dogs evolved their barking abilities to better communicate to humans, increasing their chances of survival.
Curious about how good you are at identifying barks? You can take an interactive quiz on NOVA’s website to test yourself.
Human-to-dog bonding is strikingly similar to mother-to-baby bonding
When a mother breastfeeds her infant child, oxytocin, known as the bonding hormone, is released in the brains of both of them, sending positive vibes and rapidly reinforcing their shared bond. Research using blood samples has confirmed that a similar release of oxytocin occurs for both dogs and their owners during and after petting sessions. In essence, when you are petting your dog, your brain rewards you by sending good-feeling biochemicals and further increasing your love for you canine companion. And the feeling is mutual!
In some ways, dogs may think more like us than any other animal
You can say quite a bit about something just by pointing at it, but of course, the gesture is most useful when identifying the location of something. We do it with each other all the time, but for how simple it is, research has shown that our closest biological relative and the second most intelligent animal on earth, the chimpanzee, cannot grasp the concept.
Meanwhile, dogs have shown the remarkable ability of knowing what we are are trying to convey when a human points at something. You might be thinking this is pretty obvious, but as much as we take it for granted, the underpinnings of this behavior is fascinating. We are the only species on Earth that uses this gesture, so for there to be another species of animal that can understand it is quite amazing. “If you really look at that gesture, it’s an informative gesture, so in essence, it’s a very cooperative interaction,” says Professor Juliane Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute in Dogs Decoded. “For dogs, following pointing seems to be very natural.”
“It’s very easy to imagine they developed special skills in interacting with humans because they are their new social partners,” said Kaminski. “They’ve kind of learned to interpret human communication, which is different from dog communication, so they kind of learned a second language.”
Humans bred dogs to be adorable
From the beginning stages of domestication, humans are thought to have sub-consciously bred dogs who they believed were cute. Cuteness became advantageous in an evolutionary sense. Of course, it’s obvious that dogs are cute, but why do we find them cute?
Most likely, it’s the same reason we believe human babies are cute. We have a natural inclination, an urge, to care for our babies, and studies have shown that the area of the brain that is activated when we see an infant, also activates when we see a dog. This neurological process does not happen when we see an adult human. “The need to nurture is something so deep in us, we find it very difficult to resist,” says Dr. Morten Kringelbach of the University of Oxford in Dogs Decoded. “Dogs and puppies have very infant-like features and maybe that’s one of the reasons why we think they are so cute. They remind us of the infants that we are, so to speak, programmed to like. It’s about having a large forehead, large eyes, and big ears. There is something about that, that almost unconsciously we cannot help ourselves but actually like.” Your brain demands that you think dogs are cute!
So, has science definitely proven that dogs are awesome? Well, yes. But we didn’t need science to confirm that, now did we?
Was there anything interesting that you learned from Dogs Decoded that I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments! Also, if you have any recommendations for other documentaries or television specials about dogs, I am always eager to watch more and share on here.