When you think of pets that are good companions, who comes to mind? Maybe your family pet maybe not. If you’re an adult male, chances are pretty good it’s a dog. And if you live in North America or Europe, it’s probably a mixed-breed mutt. In other parts of the world, including Asia and Africa, cats rule the roost.
People around the globe seem to agree on this much at least: They all like dogs. Some more than others, but most humans (and their dogs) enjoy spending time together. But why do we feel so strongly about these four-legged creatures? Why does our relationship with dogs go beyond just liking them? A lot of research has gone into answering that question.
To understand why we love dogs so much, archaeologists, psychologists and anthropologists look at how long human beings have relied upon dogs as friends and protectors. It turns out that dogs have been used by humans since prehistoric times, when early hunter gatherers lived off the land, subsisting largely from what they could find or kill.
Later, farmers needed help guarding fields and flocks of livestock. Early dog breeders began crossing certain animals to produce stronger guard dogs capable of performing well under pressure. These dogs were often bred specifically for hunting prowess and loyalty to the human pack.
By the Middle Ages, dogs had become indispensable members of European households. The aristocracy owned multiple dogs, which were fed special diets and treated kindly. Many people even considered their canine companion to be part of the family. Around the same era, wealthy Americans started keeping large numbers of working dogs on farms, and today, millions of American families own some type of pooch.
The History of Dogs
In his book “Man Meets Dog,” author Ivan Pavlov explores the origins of man’s love affair with dogs. He suggests that the earliest evidence of this bond dates back thousands of years ago. Ancient Egyptians kept canines during celebrations and religious ceremonies. The Greeks and Romans also worshipped their canine gods, Pan and Cerberus.
During the Middle Ages, Christian monks would pray to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose followers included several mongrels named Leonhardi, Lelio and Griselda. One legend says that St. Francis once rescued a hermit called Brother Garsiela, who was attacked by bandits. According to the story, Brother Garsiela prayed for the attackers’ conversion while reciting Psalms, leading St. Francis to intervene.
Brother Garsiela supposedly converted after hearing the holy monk speak, so he asked to be baptized. Afterward, he became known as Father Luis, and his dog was renamed Leonhardi.
A few centuries later, King Charles II of Spain gave his palace guards and household dogs names taken from the Bible. Among them were Samson, Saul and Lazarus. Even Shakespeare got in on the act. As a young boy, Hamlet encountered a talking raven named Cawdrey. Cawdrey would come back again and again to report news and gossip to the prince.
Modern day dog lovers may know that dogs aren’t always friendly toward strangers. That’s because humans have inadvertently trained many dogs over the years to associate fear with any new person entering their domain. This instinctive behavior is known as pariah anxiety, and it’s thought to have emerged due to living conditions in ancient Greece. When humans moved away from their villages and cities to farm plots outside, they brought their animals with them and those animals developed a tendency to bark at strangers.
It seems silly to suggest that kids don’t play favorites until they reach elementary school. However, children usually start playing favorites between siblings before then. So why should we expect different treatment simply based on the animal we choose to share our lives with?
One reason might be that children tend to form attachments early with the kinds of animals they encounter frequently. For example, a girl who grows up interacting mostly with other girls might develop feelings for female dogs. Likewise, a boy raised among boys will likely gravitate toward males.
Researchers say that’s one possible explanation for why children like dogs better than other pets. Another theory proposes that kids favor dogs because they resemble small versions of themselves. Perhaps they see themselves reflected in puppy eyes, or perhaps they relate to the way puppies behave, making them feel safe and warm inside.
Another psychological study found that a child’s affinity for dogs doesn’t necessarily stem from physical likenesses. Instead, researchers believe that children view dogs as comforting figures. Kids interpret dogs as being loyal, affectionate and trustworthy. Like kids, dogs provide comfort and protection. They’re also easy to train and adjust to meet the needs of the owner.
Perhaps the strongest argument for loving dogs comes from evolutionary biology. Our ancestors spent countless generations evolving social behaviors to ensure survival. Those instincts don’t disappear overnight, no matter how hard we try to suppress them.
So it makes sense that many of us still crave emotional connections with other species. Today, scientists say that humans have evolved to feel empathy for nonhuman animals. By understanding the basic emotions shared by dogs and ourselves, we can begin to appreciate each other.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly where the idea that dogs smell better than other mammals came from. It’s possible that dog owners noticed that their pets smelled cleaner and fresher after taking a swim. Or perhaps the practice arose from the fact that dogs are naturally keen hunters. Since hunting requires tracking prey through dense brush and foliage, dogs need to keep clean to avoid attracting unwanted attention from predators.