Most people who call themselves “dog lovers” will also call themselves “animal lovers,” but whichever way you look at the set-up, it’s clear that there is a very particular bond between humans and dogs. One shared between very few other species, if any at all. So what is it that causes this link or connection? Is it simply societal patterns and coincidence or does it go a little bit deeper than that? The “human-canine bond,” as it’s known in the scientific world, is a much studied area, with many theories attempting to delve into the reason we seem to find kindred spirits in our canine friends, and why they make us so happy.
The very concept of the human-canine bond wasn’t actually developed until the 1930s, when the Dutch-Austrian duo of Lorenz and Tinbergen worked together to take a look at animal instincts, behaviours and the concept of “imprinting,” which basically defines the behaviours and habits that animals will pick up based on what they are taught/shown. Psychologist Boris Levinson took this research even further after noting, by accident, that withdrawn and depressed children often had increased moods and showed signs of happiness when they would see his dog, Jingles. Pet therapy then became a respected and understood science, with Ohio State University being the first to research and evaluate it.
All in all, the three major theories considered in the human-canine bond are known as biophilia hypothesis, the social support theory and the self-object theory, and today we’re breaking them down one-by-one into layman’s terms so that you can come to your own conclusions and attempt to solve the mystery.
1. Biophilia hypothesis
This interesting concept travels a bit beyond the human-canine bond and suggests that humans have an inherent desire to connect with nature, of both flora and fauna varieties. Coined by biologist Edward O. Wilson, biophilia is defined at “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life,” which is a pretty strong explanation of our tendency to want pets in general, or to travel for the purpose of experiencing nature in new and exciting forms. This theory also suggests that because of our biology and evolution, we naturally seek affiliations with other mammals, and in our culture it is socially acceptable to keep a dog as a pet, therefore it is a normalised way to engage with another species. To spend time with your dog and get in touch with nature at the same time, check out our article on top places to take your dog.
2. The social support theory
Social-support theory basically states that animals are companions to humans. They serve as support socially while providing companionship without question, two things humans crave and essentially need for a healthy, happy life. Some of the main evidence to support this theory has been created via studies of “empty nester” families, or those without children, and the impact that introducing a pet has to their lives and wellbeing. In a broader sense, social support means the literal action of, or simply the perception that there is some kind of support or assistance available. This can be physical or emotional and in the case of our dogs it is a lot of the latter and a touch of the former. Our dogs are, by nature, always there for us, therefore we can rely on them emotionally to be consistent, loving, loyal and ever-present – four qualities often hard to come by in other humans. They also help us to improve our physical lives, as we take them for walks and exercise, so we come to view them in an extra bright light in that sense. Does one ever truly feel alone or isolated when they’re with their dog? We sure don’t think so.
3. Self-object theory
The final theory we’re taking a look at today is the self-object theory, which considers an animal to be a “self object” or rather, something that provides the human with a sense of support, confidence and clarity with regard to themselves. This falls into the broader category of self psychology, which broadly attempts to determine the way we understand ourselves via introspection. Within this theory is an explanation of why animals and our relationships with them are so vital to our sense of self and in turn, our well being. It has been repeatedly noted that people feel stronger, safer and more at one with themselves when in the presence of their companions animals. In a way, the animal, such as our beloved dogs, make us who we are and shape our personalities.
All of these theories are well and good, but they more or less suggest that humans could form this relationship with any animal, none of it is dog specific. So why dogs? Realistically, it’s likely that because of our close proximity to them, such as through use as hunting dogs and working dogs, we developed unbreakable bonds, which slowly developed into the pet or companion relationship that we see today. Through breeding and the canine dependence on humans, they’ve also become very suitable house pets, and despite this process having resulted in a 20% decrease in brain size, they’re still pretty clever and just genuinely pleasant to have around. Some dog breeds, in fact, are smarter than others.
There is also science to suggest that humans and dogs both release oxytocin when interacting with each other, and that this isn’t necessarily the case between any two other species. Animals definitely show signs of enjoying human attention, like the cat’s purr for example.
What do you think? Is there a special reason why humans and dogs bond so well?
Tiahn Wetzler is a journalist, writer, editor and animal lover. Follow her on Instagram @tiahnwetzler