Happy 18,000th Anniversary to you and your canine companion! Humans and dogs have been living in a close relationship for at least this long. During this time, humans have been consciously or unconsciously breeding dogs for the traits they want. One result is that dogs show a natural deference towards humans. But what else makes this relationship tick?
There are really two factors to consider in describing this partnership. The first variable is whether or not the relationship is a healthy one. In a healthy human-dog relationship, both species benefit physically.
Cortisol is a hormone that indicates stress. Humans and dogs in a healthy relationship will have lower levels of cortisol when they interact¹ (Schoberl et al. 2015). Oxytocin is a hormone important in social and family bonding. It’s associated with feelings of fondness and trust. Both humans and dogs will have higher levels of this pleasant hormone when they interact happily.
These changes only take a few minutes to occur, so if you’re feeling stressed, you can spend a moment petting your dog and instantly feel a little bit better. What’s more, so will your dog!
The other aspect to consider is whether the human-dog relationship is functional. In this case, “functional” means that the dog understands and follows the human’s commands. You might expect that these two things go together, but more research shows² (Payne et al. 2015; PDF) this isn’t always the case.
Are You and Your Dog a Good Match?
How Do Dogs Learn?
Dogs are highly aware of what humans say and do. This allows dogs to be trained to help humans in a variety of jobs such as working livestock, providing security, and helping the disabled.
Training usually involves rewards, but you must realize a training reward doesn’t have to be a treat. It can be a scratch behind the ears, a quick game of fetch, or anything your dog enjoys. Because your dog is likely to remember what happened just before he was rewarded, the timing of any reward is very important. After receiving a reward, your dog is likely to repeat what happened just before that.
Poor timing is a common training mistake. If you don’t want your dog to scratch up the front door, don’t grab the leash for a walk when he scratches or he will probably do it again. Rewarding your dog appropriately requires awareness and expert timing.
Rewarding or punishing a dog to shape the desired behaviors is a traditional and proven training method, but exciting new research shows that social learning is another effective way to train your dog.
Social learning is when learning takes place by observing and imitating others. It was once thought that only humans were capable of social learning, but it is now proven that animals including wolves and dogs can learn in this way as well.
Wolves are more likely to learn when imitating members of their own species, but dogs can be trained to imitate humans to learn a new behavior. This method is sometimes called “Do As I Do” or “DAID” training.
“Do As I Do” works just as well for teaching simple tricks as the older training methods, and it works better than other methods at teaching more complicated behaviors. Maybe you can teach your dog to pick up his own toys, using this type of dog training!
Of course, the first step in this training is to teach your dog to understand that a particular command means he should imitate what you just did, but once he understands this, the sky – or rather, his doggy brain – is the limit.
How Do Dogs View Humans?
You may have heard it said that dogs think of their human owners as the leaders of the pack, but studies show this may not be true³ (Berns et al. 2015). A dog taken to an unfamiliar place will have lower levels of stress hormones if he’s with a familiar human, but being with a familiar dog won’t have the same reassuring effect. This shows that dogs view humans differently than they view other dogs.
Dogs have an “attachment relationship” with humans that is similar to the attachment infants have to their parents. This means your dog craves not only food but also your affection. Dogs look to humans as sources of food, safety, and information about their environment (such as whether to be curious or afraid).
Dogs want to be near their humans, as you probably already know if your dog follows you around the house. Some dogs may suffer from separation stress. If this is your dog, his anxiety may cause misbehavior when you’re away.
Your dog sees you as a source of safety and security, and will be less stressed and more willing to explore when you are near.
Being aware of this can help you to be sensitive to your dog’s needs. For example, if you need to leave your dog with a new dog…