Man’s Best Friend: The Science Behind Why Humans And Dogs Are So Close

July 9, 2018

What is it about our dogs? Simply put, dogs enchant human beings unlike any other animal. It’s one of the most unique and intimate relationships between species in the entire animal kingdom. Now, I can already hear the cat fans grumbling a little. Don’t get us wrong, cats are great too! Full disclosure for all the cat fanatics out there, this blog is going to specifically focus on how and why dogs are uniquely capable of bonding with humans. But don’t worry, we’ll do an entire article on just cats soon enough. Perhaps we should start things off and get us in the right mood with a video of a dog sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, freaking out with excitement once he sees his owner walking back towards the car.


Ahh, that hit the spot. As someone who’s always been a huge fan of dogs, I can’t help but wonder what about them is so magical. Historically, I’ve just assumed it’s because they’re so darn cute. Their faces, with those big puppy dog eyes, and floppy tongues hanging out of their mouths, are pretty much irrisitible. Frankly, I assumed that their faces magically fell within the Golden ratio. Have you ever heard of the Golden ratio? It’s a ratio often found repeated in nature that some scientists believe biologically triggers our brain to view something as “aesthetically pleasing.” And sure, puppy faces might nail the Golden ratio unlike any other animal. But it turns out our affinity for dogs is a little more deep-seeded than just cuteness. And our relationship with them dates back upwards of 30,000 years.

Before we get into all of that, take a moment to think about what you love so much about your dog. Is it their cuteness? Or a combination of cuteness with a personality that sparks our imagination. There’s something about the way a dog acts that’s so overwhelmingly reminiscent of a human child.

People have often commented that having a dog is very much like having a toddler around. You can’t leave anything out or else they might chew on it. Their energy is usually through the roof (although they’re certainly not averse to a nap here and there). But the beauty of having a dog is that while they’re something like a child, they don’t demand as much responsibility and care as a child. Heck, a dog is as cute as a kid, but you don’t have to worry about how it’s doing in school!

Okay let’s get into the nitty gritty about why humans and dogs are so suited for one another. One of the biggest factors that enables man and dog to bond like they do is eye contact. On a biochemical basis, scientists have found that owner-dog gazing releases the same Oxytocin as you’ll find between a mother and her child. Dogs, unlike any other breed of animal, will actually gauge our mood, emotion and aggression level by looking at our eyes. But it doesn’t stop there. Evolution has ingrained that dogs have a “left gaze bias.” This means that dogs actually look towards the side of our face that most often reflects the emotions that we’re feeling. Humans do this too. Even though you’ve probably never noticed yourself doing it, we all instinctively have looked at the right side of someone’s face upon meeting or greeting them. The reason for this is that the right side of our face mirrors how the emotional left side of our brain is thinking. Somehow, dogs have learned this instinct as well. The fact that dogs are always trying to instinctively gauge our emotions is an enormously unique trait within the animal kingdom, and it is considered one of the primary indications how much humans and dogs have evolved together socially.

As pretty much any dog owner can attest, there are overwhelming positive emotional benefits of having a dog. Just ask this woman who’s surprised by her children with a brand new puppy for Christmas.

Dogs aren’t just another cute thing that relies on us for food. Our kinship with them has been proven to help humans adjust to serious illness or death, reduce stress and anxiety, lift mood and make us more social. How many times would you have rather spent the entire day indoors had it not been for your dog? Whether it’s taking a walk with him during the morning, or being forced to take her out before bed to pee, these animals twist our arms into becoming more social. Meanwhile, daily outings and social interactions, even when forced, have shown to have enormously positive affects on overall mental health. That’s why it’s not a huge surprise that service dogs remains the primary animal for all of those needing an emotional support animal. I guess it makes sense, it probably wouldn’t help your PTSD if you walked around with a giraffe on a leash. Pretty much everywhere you went, people would be running from you in fear!

This might sound like a strange way to summarize our relationship, but dogs and humans enjoy an incredibly close knit symbiotic relationship. If you’ll recall from high school biology class, a symbiotic relationship is when two animals mutually benefit from each others existence. A common example would be a bird that lives on a rhinoceros’s back, feasting off the harmful bugs that land on his back. Without the bird, the rhino would never be able to keep the bugs from burrowing under his skin. And without the rhino, this bird wouldn’t have anything to eat. In the end, they live in a perfect state of symbiosis. Here’s another great example of symbiosis:

Now, if you think about it, humans and dogs also share a symbiotic relationship. Let’s think of all the roles a dog fulfills in the average household: bodyguard, alarm clock (depending on whether your dog likes to sleep in), rodent and occasional bug catcher, hunting assistant, playmate, the list goes on. Whereas humans provide dogs with two mandatary needs: food and shelter. Sure, boiling down our relationship to a utilitiarian description of “symbiosis” feels rather stoic. And most of us don’t have a relationship with our dogs that we’d describe as purely “mutually beneficial.” We love them like we love our own children. Okay, well, admittedly a little less than our kids, but they’re up there! But we both still benefit enormously from our relationship.

Are there other animals like this? That is, other animals that share such a profound connection with us humans. Sure, there are any number of shockingly smart animals that embody some human traits. For instance, elephants have been known to experience mourning, and shed tears. Chimpanzees basically share roughly 99% of the same genome as humans. The mother-child bond in whales can last decades, if not their entire lives. Cats sometimes have a knack for knowing when we need them, and when we don’t. Heck, even crows, easily one of the smartest birds, have been known to figure out complex six and seven part puzzles in order to receive a treat. Despite all of these fascinating examples, dogs are still a cut above the rest in understanding the human psyche. And some scientists believe that’s because dog and human genomes actually evolved together. As it turns out, scientists have discovered that several groups of genes in both dogs and humans have evolved in unison over time. The similarity in the evolution of these genes, which control diet, digestion, neurological processes, suggests that humans and dogs have been sharing the same environments for tens of thousands of years.

Just imagine how beneficial having a dog would have been four thousand years ago! Long before factory farming and mass produced meat on demand, we had to hunt and gather our own food. The time required to sustain ourselves this way was almost all encompassing. We spent over half our lives in the pursuit of food. Then, along come domesticated dogs, who are uniquely capable of helping us hunt for food. Whether it’s burrowing through the ground for a rodent to eat, or finding where the birds are hiding, this would’ve been an incredible help to humans.

Despite our shared heritage and unique emotional bond, the best part of a dog is how social and gregarious they are. Perhaps it’s self centered of me, but I like being greeted enthusiastically at the end of a long day. When my wife turns the corner, I’m usually met with a quick greeting at best. Once in a while, she gives me a roll of the eye, sometimes she greets me with nothing! But my dog, on the other hand, always greets me like I’ve just returned home from war. He runs to the front door and immediately plants both of his front feet as high on my body as possible. He gives me no choice but to hug and embrace him. I pet him and give him lots of kisses which he’d probably let continue for ten more minutes if I didn’t eventually put a stop to it.

Sometimes I put on music and my dog likes to sing along.

Has your dog ever done karaoke with you? I don’t know what it is about certain types of music, but Adele in particular really strikes a cord within lots of dogs. She brings out the inner wolf still trapped deep, deep inside my dog. The moment he hears her, he can’t help himself and starts howling for his brothers and sisters.

There’s no other breed of animal that could get caught chewing through our thousand dollar couch and we’d still just roll our eyes and barely scold them. Can you imagine coming home to find your pet gerbil had escaped his cage and is ransacking your furniture?

Have you ever gotten really mad at your dog? One of the cutest things about a dog is that they know when they’re in trouble. And sometimes you don’t even have to yell for them to know they’re in deep trouble. Sometimes all you have to do is point out something they just chewed up, some example of them disobeying the rules, and even though we don’t speak the same language, they intuitively know that we’re talking about them. One of my favorites things my dog does when he’s in trouble is avoid eye contact. Truly, it’s just like a three year old who knows they’re in trouble but they’re not entirely sure why. Regardless, they know to avoid your gaze for long enough that things will eventually blow over. Lucky they’re so cute. If a raccoon pulled some of the stuff my dog has over the years, he’d be mounted over my fireplace. Check out this amazing video of a dog realizing he’s in trouble:

Hopefully this article shed a little light on why our bond with dogs is unlike anything else in the animal kingdom. Sure, I’ve seen disparate animals get along before. There are innumerable examples of ‘unlikely friends’ in the animal kingdom. But nothing like on the scale of humans and their dogs. Virtually every society has an affinity for dogs. Every continent (except Antarctica) has been home to countless dogs and their adoring families. So next time you’re putting your feet up to watch AFV on the TV. You’ve got a bowl of popcorn on your lap and your dog happily curls up by the couch (admittedly he does it for selfish reasons, because he knows there’s a pretty good chance a stray cornel of popcorn will tumble his way). Take a moment to think about all the reasons why that little guy is predisposed to be your best friend. Think about the countless generations of people before you who were equally comforted by their adorable dog curling up by their feet. From biochemical, to symbiotic, to evolutionary, humans and dogs are destined to be best buds. So, after considering all that, why not throw him a few cornels of popcorn. Even a fistful or two. He’s earned them!

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