We love our animal companions. Specie doesn’t matter – mammal, reptile, avian, or any of the eight million-plus species that currently inhabit planet earth though obviously, the vast majority of those (such as insects) do not make great pets. Our best friends are dogs, birds, and cats. Each brings their own brand of companionship to our lives, but one goes above and beyond the job of a pet. Dog brains have evolved to respond to humans in ways that, for example, cats do not. Perhaps it was the self-sufficiency and innate independence of cats that allowed them to remain a bit aloof while charming us with purrs and cute antics.
But dogs found a full-service home with humans, and they learned how to exploit that opportunity as their cognitive abilities were hardwired to adapt to dependence. They’ve shared a lot of human history for those physical adaptions to develop – they’ve been with us as companions for at least 11,000 years (cats slipped into our lives about 4,000 years later and with a totally different attitude).
My current best friend is a 19-pound mix of schnauzer (think sleeping on a pillow on the couch most of the day) and Aussie Shepherd (alert and looking for something to do). The Aussie is dominant in my Murphy, which makes him more challenging than his sweet buddy dog, Ruby, a pure Mini Schnauzer. As I write this blog, Murphy is on his human chair at my left elbow, glancing up at me and hoping to hear the sound of the postal truck so that he can warn me about the imminent danger of a half-dozen catalogs I don’t want, and offers to re-fi my house being stuffed in my mailbox.
Dogs are constant companions; they don’t complain or contradict or judge us. They accept us for who we are – and we are always enough. They endear us with eyes that adapted (unlike other critters) to express emotions through raising their eyebrows and looking directly into our eyes. We can train them to do many behaviors, and they are delighted to see our delight in their performances. Some are designed to be protectors, others to retrieve, and the finest among them to enhance life for humans with physical and emotional disabilities. Because of these and many other unique traits, we come to love them and experience a bond that’s mutual and strong.
Why and how did we come to share this interspecies relationship? According to researchers, dogs were the first species to be domesticated. DNA analysis indicates wolves wandered into early human groups well before agriculture caused human groups to settle down. But, agriculture may have been a primary trigger for further domestic adaptation of dogs – the earliest examples have been found in parts of Asia.
That they were treasured by humans is evidenced in ancient burials where they laid to rest with their humans. Over eons of close relationships and interdependency, the wolf-brain changed to make the most of the resources offered by humankind – food, shelter, protection, affection, and maybe even a ‘job’ for them among the humans.
Thanks to modern technology, researchers have verified that, no, we are not anthropomorphizing many of the traits we observe in our dogs. The most recent findings are the result of non-invasive fMRI imaging of canine brains (don’t worry - the dogs were trained to be comfortable it the machines). Among the many findings, researchers identified a “dog face area” in their brains that reacts strongly when shown images of human faces, compared to pictures of other scenes or objects.
The same holds true about pups’ dominant sense of smell. We all know that dogs check each other out by mutual butt-smelling. But lab tests showed that dogs reacted more strongly (and preferably) to the scent of their owners. Researchers say this is linked to their brain’s reward system (treats or pets from humans and not from other dogs).
And if you think your dog understands certain words, you’re probably right. But, just as important - it seems they struggle to understand unfamiliar words – indicating they are not only hearing the new word but also trying to figure it out in a language processing area of the brain. Taking the cross-species comparison even further, dogs may also experience human emotions such as depression, anxiety, and other conditions we identify with mental disorders.
Essentially, ancient grey wojves who hung out with humans learned their lifestyle was conducive to survival. They received a certain amount of protection from predators, food was more available and people were safer company than life in a pack. Evolution is based on survival, and adaptation to favorable behaviors is innate. The wolf-dog brain made physical adaptations to maximize those advantages and eventually became the dogs we know and love today. Among many such changes was the development of a flexible muscle above the eyes ( the levator anguli oculi medialis) which enables dogs to gaze at us appealing with wide, baby-like eyes. The wolf does not have the muscle to do the same.
There are many examples of dogs who excel in demonstrating skills that we identify as exclusively human. Consider the valuable work of service dogs – those for people with physical disabilities and also for folks with serious brain disorders, like post-traumatic stress syndrome. These highly trained pooches perform tasks that require human-like understanding, anticipation, vigilance, and consistency. And human history is abundant with examples of heroic dogs saving lives because of their bond with humankind – even people they don’t know.
That the survival-oriented, pack-adapted wolf brain evolved to live so wholly for and with people is a testimony to the trust and affection we shower on our canine best friends. No, we are not making too much of our relationships with our dogs, and we are completely justified in attributing to them the characteristics we most admire in fellow humans. Loyalty, trust, a protective instinct, and unquestionable friendship. All that for the price of kibble, frequent walks, scratches behind the ears.
Murphy has dashed to jump on a chair that allows him full view of the postal truck that I don’t see, but he can hear more than a block up the street. His barking alerts me. I depend on him as an early warning system for dangers both real and imagined as well as daily reminders of what’s most important in life – love of dog being high on that list.
I hope you have the comfort of a well-loved animal in your life, particularly throughout the challenges of the past couple of years. If you’ve got a good tale of your best friend – let me know. I’m at email@example.com. I love hearing from you and deeply appreciate your time and attention.
Sharing: Here’s a blog from my friend, Mitos, whose home was destroyed in the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines. If you’d like to know more about the trials of an experience we all hope we never have CLICK HERE.
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Happy Birthday Murder (A Reporter Roland Bean Cozy Mystery) by Rachel Woods. Get it here!