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Karen B. London
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Do Dogs Form Friendships?
Article in Time Magazine says no

Sometimes when you have a strong opinion about something and want to share your views, someone else expresses what you think so well that all you really want to say is, “Yeah! What she said!” I am currently having that experience. I just read Trisha McConnell’s blog responding to the new article in Time Magazine about the science of animal friendships, and I highly encourage you to take a look at her articulate reaction. (The original Time Magazine article is only available online to subscribers.)

In the article, writer Carl Zimmer makes some good points, but I believe he’s off the mark a bit on some others. On the plus side, he discusses research supporting the formation of friendship in a variety of species other than humans. On the downside, he asserts that scientists have only recently concluded that animals form friendships, which runs counter to the work of Barbara Smuts, Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall, to name a few of the people whose research provided substantial and well-accepted evidence of animal friendships decades ago.

Kudos to the author for pointing out that long term studies of animals are essential for understanding bonds between individuals and asserting that such studies are highly valuable. A thumbs up to Zimmer for understanding that all the anecdotes in the world can’t make up for the lack of research and hard data. It’s true that studies of friendship in the domestic dog are sorely lacking. However, I must insert a thumbs down here since a paucity of evidence because the phenomenon has not been investigated does not merit the article’s claim that most scientists think dogs “fall short of true friendship.”

I’m glad that Zimmer wrote this article so we can participate in the discussion about it. It’s a wake up call regarding the need for more research on social relationships in dogs AND the importance of scientists making themselves available and more easily accessible to people who write articles about science. (Zimmer has written on Facebook that he spoke to several scientists while researching this article, but he didn’t mention any whose work dealt with social relationships in dogs.)

I think there is ample reason to think that rigorous studies are likely to support the idea that dogs form true friendships, and I’d love to see good studies that address the question. What do you have to say about the topic of friendship in dogs?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

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