These benefits can be real for any two dogs who enjoy each other’s company, but dog friendships offer something above and beyond the play factor. For one thing, friends seem especially likely to come to each other’s aid when in trouble. For example, we were at a park when another dog approached us. The dog, a medium-sized mix, charged toward Sage and barked in his face. Sage turned and walked away, so the newcomer turned his attention toward Sam — first barking and then growling at him. These were not play growls. In an instant, Sage ran over and placed himself directly in front of Sam and faced the newcomer. Sage barked and walked toward him. The other dog moved back, and then took off in response to a call from a distance. Although it all happened very quickly, it was clear that Sage had supported his friend. Over the years there have been several similar incidents in which the bolder dog, Sage, supported the less assertive Sam during conflicts with other dogs.
Or take Bahati, a dingo-like female who is friends with Tex, a light-brown male sporting a black mask. Tex’s human friend, Tyson, was trying to help Tex overcome his fear of deep water. Standing on a dock with Tex in his arms, Tyson slowly lowered him into the water while Bahati watched from shore. Although the water was shallow enough for Tex to stand in, he panicked, paws flailing wildly. Before Tyson had a chance to do anything, Bahati sped up the dock and leaped into the water beside Tex. A strong swimmer, she immediately headed toward the shore, and a reassured Tex swam alongside her.
Although neither Sage’s defense of his friend nor Tex’s panic were life threatening situations, consider a video that hundreds of thousands of people have watched on Youtube. Cars and trucks were speeding along a freeway in Santiago, Chile, while a routine surveillance camera automatically filmed the scene. A stray dog was hit by a truck and lay injured on the road. Seconds later, another stray braved the speeding cars to cross several lanes to reach the other dog. Then this rescuer dragged the wounded dog backward, using forepaws, until they safely reached the edge of the road. Clearly, dogs enter the world primed to care about and for others, whether canine or human.
Friends can provide much-needed stability when change threatens a dog’s equilibrium. After Sage’s two canine housemates died within two weeks, he lost interest in going for walks, eating and training. It was clear that he was in mourning. People, when grieving, get solace by talking about their loss and spending time with close friends and family, but what’s a dog to do? Sage couldn’t exactly pick up the phone and share his feelings with Sam, but with our help he could visit his buddy. Sage began to spend several hours at Sam’s house a couple of times a week, and after each visit he seemed transformed. He would return home with his big, open-mouth smile, which always made us smile too; he would eat that evening and he seemed happier. As the visits continued, Sage slowly came back to life and, thanks to Sam, before long he was his old self again.
The fact that Sam, not we, could draw Sage out of his black hole indicates that dogs can give each other something we cannot. In particular, we can never chase and tackle the way another dog can, and we don’t speak their language. This raises an important question: If our dogs have canine best friends, does this detract from our relationships with them? In our experience, the answer is a definite “no.” Although our dogs routinely play and hang out with their canine friends, they still seek us out and adore our company as much as ever. We spend one-on-one quality time with each of our dogs, whether we’re having fun in agility, teaching new tricks, or playing hide-and-seek. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Dogs can have dog friends and still be close to us. Access to dog friends makes dogs happier, and happier dogs make for better human companions.
Can our dogs’ social needs be met through dog parks or dog daycare? For some dogs — the confident extroverts — perhaps, but others are more shy, and, as they age, many dogs lose interest in the company of exuberant youngsters. There also exist dogs who don’t get along well with other dogs but who can be friends with a special someone.