Greece, India, Sumatra, Egypt, Scotland, Turkey, China: cultures around the world abound in cynocephalic heroes or gods, individuals with the body of a human and the head of a dog (or sometimes a jackal). The existence of a word to describe such phenomena speaks to how common they are. Though other mythical human/animal chimeras are known—the centaur and minotaur, for example—none are as widespread as those involving canines. This depiction of creatures with the traits of both humans and dogs attests to the longstanding idea that we are connected. We are, it seems, naturally predisposed to form deep connections with dogs.
Chemical systems responsible for the most powerful feelings between humans are also activated by our interactions with dogs. This means that physiologically speaking, we bond with our dogs in the same way we do with our children: through a positive feedback loop involving oxytocin, a hormone involved in many aspects of social behavior.
Petting our dogs raises levels of oxytocin in both species, which makes us feel closer, which makes us seek out more physical contact, which raises our oxytocin levels, which makes us feel even closer and so on (and on and on). Even gazing into one another’s eyes without touching generates the same pattern. Studies of canine attachment show that dogs who have strong connections to their people are more confident and better able to explore the world. (It’s no coincidence that scientists have found that to be the case in human children as well.)
Dogs and people recognize emotions in members of the other species to a degree that is typically only possible within one’s own species. Dogs are able to distinguish neutral human expressions from ones conveying emotions, as well as to make a distinction between different emotional expressions— say, happy human faces and angry ones. This is not news to anyone who has ever lived with a dog; we’re all aware that trying to keep our emotions a secret from our dogs is impossible. They just know, in the same way that perceptive members of our own species aren’t fooled when we say we’re fine but are anything but.
It works the other way as well. Even people with no particular training in canine behavior are generally good at reading some dog emotions. A sad dog is easy to recognize, and so is a happy one. Highly fearful dogs can’t fool people either, though those without much dog experience don’t always recognize dogs who are a little bit anxious or sort of nervous.
The close connection between dogs and people is evident in another tool in the canine tool box: they are adept at using facial recognition to identify individuals. Even more interesting, dogs “read” human faces in much the same way that people do, with a specialized part of the brain used for processing that particular type of visual input. People also understand dog vocalizations. For example, we are able to recognize different types of growls. In one study, people were easily able to distinguish play growls from aggressive ones, and were even able to identify growls emitted in two different, potentially aggressive contexts: growling at another dog over food and growling at an approaching stranger. People with more dog experience did better, but even novices had success.
Just as we understand dog vocalizations, they are able to make sense of ours, and are responsive to our tone of voice as well as our words. In both human and canine brains, the same area of the temporal lobe responds to human speech; crying and laughing, as well as canine whimpers and intense barking, cause activity near the primary auditory cortex of both species.
So, it’s a simple biological fact that physiologically, visually, acoustically and cerebrally, humans and dogs just get each other. The closeness we feel to dogs is a natural outcome of that biological connection.
Bonding with Your Dog through Teamwork
Beyond biology, there are plenty of catalysts for this mutually rewarding relationship. As with human friendships, when we spend time with a dog and have experiences together, our love grows, the relationship deepens and we feel even more bonded. It seems that the more we share, the closer we feel.
One of the things we can share with dogs is a sense of purpose. That’s why it makes sense that some of the best examples of the deepest connections between people and dogs come from teamwork—working together to accomplish a common goal. When a dog and a person team up, the connection between our species seems to be the strongest and most inspiring.
There’s a reason working dogs and their handlers are called only “teams.” A dog and a person with a job to do have a mutual purpose, and the cooperation and partnership involved naturally lend themselves to a closeness that extends beyond the work. Whether the job involves search and rescue, detection, military, police or service work, when dogs and people share a purpose, they become close. Equal partners who rely on each other, each contributes a unique skill set that must be integrated for success.
Take, for example, the close relationship between Border Collies and their handlers, a relationship that derives from facing physical risks and working hard to make something happen. As a team, Border Collies and their handlers are trying to safely control the movements of a flock of sheep, who can be scary and dangerous. Sometimes, the goal is to separate one or more individuals from the group, perhaps in order to provide medical care, or to separate merged groups.
The speed and power of the sheep make it physically challenging work. Add to that the fact that sheep are not particularly collaborative when it comes to the human/canine desire to control and direct them. These challenges require a team to communicate quickly and to respond both to one another and to the actions of the sheep. That in turn requires a good understanding of and an ability to predict how each partner will react. Repeated efforts over days, weeks, months and years build that understanding and lead to increased success.
Even though to a casual observer, it appears as though all that’s going on is a person is giving cues to a dog, much more is involved. And in fact, sometimes a dog will not respond to a cue because the dog knows that to do so will cause a problem, perhaps opening up a hidden escape path for the sheep.
Many Border Collie handlers have had a dog decline to obey a cue and then realized that the dog did the right thing. It takes a profound level of trust for the human to accept a refusal by the dog as well as for the dog to execute a refusal. That trust is part of what makes them feel close and able to work together successfully for a common purpose. The positive feedback loop of trust and accomplishment further bonds them.
The internal experience of deep love and connection to a dog is one way to be aware of the closeness we share with canines, but we can observe it from the outside, too. Take canine freestyle, a competition based on a combination of obedience training, trick training and dance. Simply put, it’s dancing to music with a dog, with the purpose of demonstrating artistry, style, athleticism and the ability to work as a team. These performances reveal strong connections for a variety of reasons.
It takes a lot of training to put together a stellar routine, and anyone watching teams compete can see that. The mutually focused attention is every bit as obvious, and the unity the pair displays is inspiring. Synchronized movements as well as mirrored actions (subconscious imitations of another’s behavior, which psychological studies have shown to foster rapport) speak to a close connection between the participants.
These highly coordinated routines may partially explain why spectators experience the connection so intensely. In fact, the way observers feel while watching is a big part of a successful performance, in much the same way that the ability of figure-skating pairs to ignite emotions in the audience is an essential attribute of those who become champions. Dogs doing freestyle who are literally in sync with their people inspire those who watch them because the behavior in the routine is a visual and symbolic manifestation of emotional closeness.
Eat, Play, Love
Dogs often prefer the folks who play with them to the folks who feed them, even when really great treats are involved. Play is so powerful that across a wide variety of species, mothers who play with their offspring are more likely to have strong relationships with them. Having fun together may be the very best way for individuals to build a relationship. For the book about play between people and dogs I co-authored with Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, Play Together, Stay Together, the title was more than just a catchy phrase: it describes our deeply held belief in the power of play to bring us together.
Finally, in some cases, this deep interspecies connection cannot be explained by logic or reason. The best way to describe the most magical human/canine relationships is simply to say that the dog and the person are in love. The dogs involved are often described as “heart dogs,” “soulmates” or simply as the “love of our lives.” These are the once-in-a-lifetime dogs that change us forever. The first person I knew who shared this especially deep and close connection with one of her dogs is my aforementioned friend and mentor, Patricia McConnell, who loved her dog Luke like no other. Whenever someone describes the canine love of her life, I think to myself, That dog is her Luke. I knew and loved Luke myself, and since he meant so much to my friend, I take pleasure in honoring him and the love that they shared.
We love our dogs and feel connected to them in a way that defies definition, yet we understand it so well. Long before the biology of our deep and beautiful friendships was understood, we knew that our bond was special. The hyperbolic “We can’t live without them!” may not be literally true, but most of us certainly could not live happily without them.
While there’s something extremely simple about the depth of our relationships with dogs, there’s also something far too breathtaking about our love for one another to ever cease to marvel at it.