What is the relationship between dogs and humans?
Written by Executive Researcher Louis Raphaël Afford Lessof
Bruxelles, August 2020
Dogs and Humans have enjoyed a close relationship for millennia
Dogs and humans have enjoyed a close relationship for millennia
The origin of the domestic dog is lost in time but it is clear that they are genetically derived from a form of wolf and diverged from them between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, possibly in the Late Pleistocene period (or ice age). Their wild wolf ancestor is extinct, and dogs are no longer genetically close to any living wolf population, but they are still recognizably wolf-like canids.
Dogs were domesticated, probably before humans even began to ‘tame’ and breed wild sheep, goats or pigs. Dogs who became separated from their pack or who had a more docile temperament may have begun to follow human hunters to feed off the scraps they left behind and ended up domesticated by (and helping) humans in tracking and catching prey. Once hunter gathering shifted to farming some 15,000 years ago, dogs may have gone on to
function as guard dogs, offering early detection of danger and protection to grazing animals and their owners.
It isn’t clear where dogs were first domesticated but much of the literature suggests Central Asia or East Asia. It is also possible that dogs were domesticated in different places simultaneously. In Western Europe traces of a dog buried beside humans have been found from some 14,200 years ago. This ‘specimen’ is known as the Bonn-Oberkassel dog and its remains suggest that it must have been sick before it died and been cared for by the people it is buried with for some months.
This example of caring dates back 36,000 years. There are other ancient sources that suggested people relied on dogs not just for the help they could provide in hunting or in herding domestic animals but in other more recognizably ‘modern’ and emotional ways. There are ancient myths and stories of dogs as faithful servants and as protectors of the home for example Argos the dog that waits
for 20 years for Odysseus in Ancient Greece for Shvan the dog that carries the Hindu god Bhairava on his back (Box 1). There are even stories about dogs as the original source of cultivatable food in Chinese and South American myth and a Chinese zodiac
year that casts dogs as loyal and honest.
Dog's Relations with humans have always been symbiotic, but the kind of 'exchange' has shifted
The earliest examples are of dogs used in hunting and herding; for protection and for transport (in Inuit traditions) and racing.
More modern examples include dogs that work with police forces (detecting drugs or explosives or pursuing suspects); in farming(sheep or cattle dogs); in field sports (gun dogs that flush out and collect game birds);or in caring roles (as guide dogs, dogs detecting diabetic or epileptic episodes, or
in mountain rescue work). These caring roles in particular have grown in recent
decades, with an understanding that dogs are sensitive to a range of human medical conditions and can alert sufferers to moments of risk. Dogs have also and increasingly been important as companion animals or pets (see below).
In all these settings the service to humans is clear. The symbiotic element – the exchange or ‘reward’ – for dogs is that they are given physical care (food, water, shelter, grooming, veterinary aid when required) and mental stimulation and support (security, exercise, toys, treats and attention).
Dogs are pack animals by instinct and therefore prefer to be part of a group and to have a well-defined place in that group. Working dogs are typically, treated as valued (as a way of ensuring they continue to function well) and are often “loved” and pets even more so. They derive nurturing from their relationships with humans who enable them to thrive.
Dogs relate to humans across the world but are viewed differently in Different cultures
There is evidence of dogs as part of myth systems from across continents. There are also dog owners and dog breeders in all the various regions of the world (Box 2). However, not all cultures have the highly developed sense of dogs as domestic animals that is so common in Europe.
The Muslim, and to some extent, orthodox Jewish religions see dogs as somewhat unclean (in Arabic haram or forbidden). This is a legacy of the scavenging behavior of dogs in the ancient world. They served a purpose, cleaning up the detritus of life in a city but were nonetheless viewed as dirty. This judgement and the scriptural authority for it is debated but prejudices against dogs are exacerbated both by superstitions and also by the incidence of rabies and the fact that dogs, as carriers or rabies, can pose a real threat to people.
Dogs are often seen as a best friend and one of the family
Across much of Europe and the English- speaking world dogs are kept as pets or what is now termed a companion animal. There are still homes where dogs play a working role (on farms or when they are guide dogs for the blind) but broadly speaking they are kept for their company.
There are of course differences in the way individuals and families regards dogs linked to culture, socio-economic status / income levels, the numbers of members of a household and their ages but broadly speaking dogs are provided with
● Specially formulated high protein and
“balanced” dog food developed in dog friendly ‘flavours’.
● Clean water from their own drinking bowl.
● A basket or bed and blanket to sleep in.
● Exercise twice a day or more.
● An enriched environment including dog toys, balls and so on.
● Grooming (with their own brush and shampoo and regular ‘haircuts’).
They are, in some ways, treated as one would treat a child. Increasingly they are also named as people name human children. Certainly, the most popular dog names of recent years have been human rather than “dog” names. Internet searches show Charlie, Max, Buddy, Oscar, Milo, Archie, Ollie, Toby, Jack and Teddy are the most popular male dog names in the UK (February 2020). Of these all are also used for human children and four are in the top ten names for UK born boys in the same year. Names for female dogs and girl children show slightly less overlap with all the names for dogs being “human” too, but only Poppy featuring in the top ten for both animals and children. They are very different to the ‘traditional’ dog names of Rex, Rover, Shep or Goldie, which were very much dog only.
However naming conventions have evolved, dogs in western societies have typically been given attention and “love” and regarded as personalities with needs and wants and rights within the family. This can be characterized as anthropomorphism with owners attributing human attitudes and feelings to their dogs, but many would argue that their dogs do understand them. They see them as empathizing with their moods, playing an active part in a ‘dynamic’ relationship and modelling the best of human behavior (Box 3). There is 2016 research that tends to support this with Hungarian experiments (at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) on dogs using MRI scanners suggesting that they can detect specific praise words and the emotion or tone with which they are delivered. It seems that dog brain activity is quite like that in humans.
Dogs have perhaps become overly close to humans and increasingly they seem to share some of the problems of life in post-industrial society. There is a growth in the diagnosis of dog obesity and dog diabetes has emerged, perhaps as a result of the over indulgence that has been so bad for human health. There are also cases of (and treatment for) dog anxiety. Dogs on the other hand are good for human health. Researchers have explored the impact dogs have on people’s health and well- being and found that they reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. This is in part a function of their simply being there and needing to be cared for, which creates a (helpful) structure, routine and sense of purpose, reduces loneliness and encourages playfulness. Owning a dog obliges owners to go out and exercise, which is positive in terms of cardiovascular health and is also ‘healthy’ because it encourages interaction with other people (particularly other dog owners) further reducing loneliness. There are additional physiological benefits. Pet owners have lower blood pressure and respond more robustly in stressful situations than those without pets. Dog owners over 65 make fewer visits to the doctor than their non-dog owning counterparts. US studies have also shown that adopting a dog helps people with borderline hypertension and that patients with pets survive longer following a heart- attack than those without. It seems that dog owners tend to have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets. Quite how this works is not always clear but playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax people. Humans also release oxytocin when stroking pet dogs as show by J.S. J. Odenaal in a 2003 study. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with bonding and affection but also with raised levels of happiness (or perceived happiness).
Dogs are de facto a source of social support and boost a person's sense of self-worth and well-being. Psychologists sometimes talk of pets as “self objects” and attribute them with creating a sense of cohesion and bolstering a person’s sense of self. Jungian therapists have described them in terms of archetypes (Box 4). However, their psychological impact is defined, it is clear that dogs boost self-esteem and a sense of ‘connectedness’ and that they are especially valuable for people who are more isolated. This includes the elderly but also ‘only’ children. Caring for a dog can help children
grow up more secure.
Various American researchers (Hirschman,
Belk, Holbrook) have found that keeping
pets has utility for owners. They each see
things slightly differently, but the common
themes suggest owners see dogs as
● ‘Consumer’ objects or ‘toys’ to be owned
and controlled and as consumption
● Ornaments of aesthetic value or to show
or as status symbol.
● Equipment to perform other functions
(particularly search and rescue or
● Sources of pleasure and problems.
● Sources of opportunity for play, learning
nurturing, outdoor experience, social
● Companion, friend, (less than fully adult)
family member, sibling, or child or
extension of self.
So while dogs have specific service roles (particularly since the 1970s and after the work of Boris Levinson) in assisting humans with mobility, in medical alert and in “animal-facilitated therapy” (fostering a healing environment to tackle symptoms of isolation, depression, and mental illness), it is also clear they play just as important service roles in “ordinary” families and in day to day life.
Dogs contribute to human and to
economic wellbeing – with billions a
year in spending in Europe alone
Dogs also play an economic role and make a significant contribution to the expenditures in all those countries with widespread dog ownership and where dog ownership is akin to a hobby. It is estimated that in the US over 48% of households have a pet dog. In Europe figures range quite widely between countries (Figure 1). It is not clear if this reflects culture or wealth differences or levels of urbanization but collectively Europeans spend over 20 billion dollars (18.5 billion Euros) a year on their dogs which has considerable economic impact. Dog ownership also creates jobs in the manufacture and retail of dog food and other dog related areas.
Fig 1: The % of households owning dogs varies across the EU (from 14-45 in this 2018 sample)
The relationship between dogs and humans or human–canine bonding can be traced back thousands of years: to rock paintings in Saudi Arabia; to ancient Greek terracotta statuettes and to a dog buried with its human family in Bonn-Oberkassel around 14,000 years ago. For centuries, dogs have been labeled as "man's best friend," or perhaps more properly as “people’s best friend” and known for faithfulness and loyalty. This may not be equally true for every culture or every country, but folk law is full of tales of dogs who defend humans and the image of a boy (or girl) and his (or her) much loved dog is a commonplace of cinema and children’s literature. Dogs may have been domesticated to work but they have always enjoyed a bond with human beings that goes beyond the transactional. Both dogs and people are instinctively pack animals and comfortable as part of a collective. Perhaps more than anything, dogs offer companionship to their human counterparts and seem to value the companionship they get in return.