Why Dogs are our Friends

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Why Dogs are Our Friends

Have you ever played a word game where you respond with what first comes to mind when another word or phrase is mentioned?  In such a game, how would you respond to the phrase "man's best friend"? I would venture to guess the response would be prompt and almost universal. It would be dog. Have you ever stopped to wonder why dog's have this reputation? Well here are some facts that I believe can explain it.

The domestic dog's wild ancestor was the wolf - possibly the Asiatic wolf. Since the first domestication event about 4000 generations of breeding have resulted in the many and varied breeds that are familiar to us today. Most of the modern breeds have been developed in the last 150 years. Some of the first remains of domesticated dogs have been found in a cave in Iraq that dates to 12,000 years ago. There are several other locations where remains of domestic dogs are dated between 10,000 - 15,000 years ago. For the past 6500 years dogs have been found everywhere that humans have been found. This becomes an important factor in why we are friends. We have been living closely with one another for a long time.

All members of the canine species share certain social patterns. Domestication has caused some differences in behaviour between dogs and wolves. Dogs tend to bark more than wolves do. Dogs tend to be more docile and more adaptable than their wild cousins. Predatory behaviour has been changed in dogs. Yet despite these changes, the social nature of domestic dogs remains consistent with all other canines.

It is interesting to compare the similarity of the social systems of dogs and humans. Many aspects are shared and I believe this also is responsible for our long history with the canine species. We tend to organize ourselves in the same fashion and it would appear we understand each other's system quite well.

Both humans and canines live in extended family groups. A wolf pack or African wild dog pack will have individuals living, eating and working (i.e. hunting) very closely   with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and perhaps some unrelated animals. Rules have developed to govern the relationships between such family members.

The extended family will provide extensive parental care. There will be a sharing in the care of the young between related and unrelated group members. As well, both humans and canines give birth to young that share many similarities. Newborn puppies are confined to a nest for a considerable length of time. Human infants require time in the cradle. The young of both species require large amounts of early care and sustained amounts of social interaction. They nurse for an extended period of time before they are weaned to semisolid food. Dogs accomplish this by regurgitating food they have eaten, for the puppies at the den site, to eat. Humans use baby food.

Both dogs and people reach sexual maturity before social maturity. Dogs are sexually mature by the time they are 6 to 9 months of age and are not socially mature until 18-36 months old. People are sexually mature sometime between 8 and 13 years of age but are not socially mature until well into their 20s or 30s (if ever!).

The human social system is a fluid hierarchical one. Persons in a family group are ranked or have status based on age, ability or both but it is also based on other individuals respecting or giving deference to such persons. Thus it is determined who will sit at the head of the table at holiday meals. Social order in canine families is very much like this. Occasional contests between pack members will determine the pecking order but day-to-day interactions are based on one individual yielding to another. Both dogs and people tend to follow a leader when in a group.

Finally, both humans and canines use extensive vocal and non-vocal communications. It has been estimated that up to 80% of all human communication is non-verbal. Unfortunately, because our social systems are so similar and so many similar signals are used in communication it can sometimes lead to difficulties. People may assume when a dog gives a signal similar to a human signal it means the same thing. It must be remembered, though, the dog is speaking dog. For example, a dog giving signs that may be perceived by a human as being friendly signals may, in fact, be the dog exhibiting challenging behaviour.    
We have lived together for a longtime, have similar family groupings, maintain social order in like fashion and communicate much the same, no wonder dogs are our good friends.