Humane Aware Blog

The Special Bond Between Dogs and Humans

September 2nd 2019

As anyone who has ever loved a dog will confirm, humans and their canine companions can form incredibly close bonds. Indeed, dogs sometimes seem more adept at understanding and reacting to our emotions than other people do. They have an amazing ability to communicate with us and can read our subtle gestures better than our closest living genetic relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. Recent research suggests that they have even developed unique muscles in their eyebrows to be able to better communicate with us and elicit our love.

It's hard to imagine that dogs were once considered to be no more than automata – organic machines that react to stimuli mechanically and without true emotion. Of course, anyone who has owned and loved a dog would be quick to argue that there is so much more to them than that. Darwin beautifully describes the emotional exuberance of a dog greeting its human in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals:

But man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master. Nor can these movements in the dog be explained by acts of volition or necessary instincts, any more than the beaming eyes and smiling cheeks of a man when he meets an old friend.

So how did dogs become our best friends? A common theory is that we domesticated dogs through a mutually beneficial relationship in which they earned food and security in return for their services in hunting and guarding. In other words, we helped to shape the early dog into the loyal companion it is today. But maybe dogs played a role in modifying our behaviour too.

While I was giving my dog some belly rubs and she was gazing up at me with big, loving eyes, I was reminded of some research I’d previously seen that suggests humans and dogs co-evolved. This study found that when dogs and their humans interacted, extended eye contact increased oxytocin levels in both the dog and its owner. Oxytocin (aka the love hormone) plays a role in human bonding, particularly in maternal bonding. This positive feedback loop indicates that dogs have managed to commandeer the maternal bonding pathway in the brain and reinforce this special inter-species bond.

That dogs and humans share this unique relationship, makes the abuse of these loyal companions so much harder to bare. At Humane Aware, we support animal rescue centres and animal welfare charities in the UK and internationally to campaign for positive changes to animal welfare legislation and policy.

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