Dogs are man's (and woman's) best friend. They love us (and not just because we feed them), and we love them—but why? On the dog's side of the relationship, the reasons seem obvious; we feed them, shelter them, and generally shower them with love and affection. But what do humans get out of the man/dog relationship? Here's what science has to say about why we love our dogs so darn much.
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Do humans really love dogs?
You bet your butt we do. Scientists have studied the bond between man and man's best friend a lot (not as much as we'd like them to, maybe, but still) and one of those studies looked at oxytocin released when dogs and their people interact. According to The Telegraph, researchers from the University of Tokyo and Duke University put people in a room with their own dogs and asked them to interact. The researchers noted every interaction, from loving gazes to playful pets and then they tested the urine of both the humans and the dogs. They found that increased eye contact was correlated with more oxytocin (aka the love hormone) in both humans and dogs. When the same test was run with domesticated wolves, the oxytocin levels didn't rise, suggesting that this phenomenon is unique to the dog-human bond.
So, why does this prove that humans really love their dogs? Well, other things that trigger the release of oxytocin include mothers spending time with their babies and romantic partners spending time together. Sooo...yeah.
"These results suggest that humans may feel affection for their companion dogs similar to that felt toward human family members, Dr. Miho Nagasawa, from the department of animal science at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, told The Telegraph of the findings.
When did humans start to love dogs?
Obviously, the human/dog relationship goes back a long, long way. How far back? Somewhere between 13,000 and 30,000 years ago, according to scientific analysis of wolf and dog genes and dog bones discovered way back in ancient burial sites. But our true love affair with doggos began 10,000 years ago, according to Clive Wynne, the director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University.
Wynne cites this as the beginning of humans truly loving their dogs because it's when we start finding elaborate burials of dogs.
"You get dog burials, which show there was a lot of care and attention paid to the burial," Wynne told The Washington Post. "And they include grave goods [valuable items placed in the grave for use in the afterlife], which really seems like there was a strong indication of affection."
Agreed. Sound logic, Wynne.
How did dogs make humans fall in love with them?
To answer this one, we need to go back to the oxytocin study we discussed above. According to Dr. Evan MacLean, a senior research scientist at Duke University, dogs basically tricked us into loving them by acting like something else they noticed we love even though they're useless: Babies.
"They became attuned to our social cues in the way that young children are. For example when dogs are presented with an impossible task they quickly turn to humans to see what to do, just like children do. Wolves don't do that," MacLean explained to The Telegraph. "One evolutionary scenario might be that dogs found a way to hijack these parenting responses and dogs over time may have taken on more childlike and juvenile characteristics to further embed themselves into our lives."
This "hijacking" worked so well that the way we love dogs is actually really similar to the way we love our own human babies.
"Our relationship with dogs are very much like parent child relationships," MacLean said. "We respond to our dogs quite a bit like human children. Brain imaging studies have shown that brain networks of mothers respond in the same way to pictures of their own dog to their own children."
John Archer, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, agrees. "Consider the possibility that pets are, in evolutionary terms, manipulating human responses, that they are the equivalent of social parasites," he said, according to Slate.
How much do humans love dogs?
A lot. Like a lot a lot. According to a study published in the journal Society and Animals, at least some humans actually do love dogs more than they love other humans. That's not hyperbole. That's science.
In the study, 240 students were shown fake newspaper stories about an attack on a either person or on a dog. Participants were shown different variations of the report, with the same description of the attack (the fictional victim was described as having been attack with a baseball bat and left unconscious with a broke leg and "multiple lacerations), but with different descriptions of the victim. Specifically, the participants were either told the victim was a one-year-old baby, a 30-year-old adult, a puppy, or a six-year-old dog.
Apparently, the scientists (a research team from Northeastern University) predicted going into the experiment that people's empathy would be determined by the age of the victim, not its species. But oh, how wrong they were. People felt almost equally bad for the human baby, the puppy, and the adult dog, but across the board felt less bad for the adult human. And the
"Respondents were significantly less distressed when adult humans were victimized, in comparison with human babies, puppies and adult dogs," the researchers reported. "Only relative to the infant victim did the adult dog receive lower scores of empathy."
In another study aimed at quantifying human love for dogs relative to our love for other humans, a UK medical research charity tested the public with two fake donation campaigns. Both ads posed the same question: "Would you give 5 pounds to save Harrison from a slow, painful death?" In one version of the ad, there was a picture of a human and in the other, there was a picture of a dog. Unsurprisingly, Harrison the Dog got more donations than Harrison the Human.