People: it turns out we’re not dogs (to dogs)

Title: A comparison of dog–dog and dog–human play behaviour

Authors: Nicola J. Rooney, John W.S. Bradshaw, Ian H. Robinson

Published: 2000 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science


General overview:

The authors noted that there is a general acceptance that dogs view people – especially their owners – as conspecifics (members of the same species). This wisdom has been incorporated into popular culture but it has also been promoted by behaviorists in the past: ‘‘…there is no doubt about the fact that the dog considers its human master as a socially superior member of its own species — as a member of its pack…’’ (Heini Hediger, known as the “father of zoo biology”). These authors question assumption because there has been little empirical exploration of dog-to-dog interactions in comparison to dog-to-human interactions.

To provide an empirical exploration of dog and human interactions, these authors conducted three studies: a visual survey of people walking their dogs, an analysis of data collected for a nationwide pet food survey and finally, a comparison of dogs playing with dogs and then with humans. In the visual survey of people walking their dogs and the analysis of the nationwide pet food survey, the authors were looking for information about how often single dogs played with their owners vs. multi-dog household dogs played with their owners. In the comparison of dogs playing with dogs and then playing with humans, the authors were considering the actual composition of play: what behaviors dogs displayed when playing with other dogs vs. the behaviors dogs displayed when playing with humans.

The authors demonstrated that intraspecific play (that is, dog/human play) does not reduce interspecific play (dog/dog play): dogs in multi-dog household were, in general, more likely to engage in play with their owner than single dog households. Furthermore, the authors showed that the structure of dog-human play involving a toy (object-oriented play) was statistically different that dog-dog object-oriented play.

My comments:

Why has the idea that dogs view humans as “one of them” been so widely accepted? As humans, we have a tendency to anthropomorphize everything. In our haste to make any aspect of our world like us, it is not a great leap to assume that other species do that same to us. Dogs make that assumption even easier than nearly any other species, given their proclivity to seek out human attention and interactions. However, dogs are “human social” because we bred them that way. Dogs understand many human social cues – does if necessarily follow that this is because dogs view humans as conspecifics? These authors argue that it does not: in the context of play, dogs appear to have a motivation to play with humans that is not satisfied by playing with dogs – or else the authors would have seen a diminished propensity for dog/human play in multi-dog households (but they in fact saw the opposite).

What implications does this have for human/dog interactions? Because most dogs are kept (in the Western world) as companions, a vast array of popular literature on modifying the relationship between dogs and people has amassed. The authors point out that some of this literature attempts to modify dog behavior based on behavior traits viewed in a distant relative to domestic dogs (wolves), a rationale which has since been soundly debunked as fallacious for a number of reasons. Furthermore, some of this dog training literature asserts that dogs attempt to form hierarchies with humans and owners must assert their position as “alpha” in order to maintain an appropriate relationship with their dog(s).

So do dogs attempt to form hierarchies with humans and is it necessary for an owner to establish their “alpha” position? The dogs studied here demonstrated marked differences in how and how often they played with humans vs. dogs, indicating that dogs do not view humans as conspecifics or “one of them”. The authors conclude that if dogs do not view humans as conspecifics, it is very unlikely that they try to form hierarchies with humans. (And more on this point: domestic dogs probably don’t form hierarchies with other dogs – dog/dog interactions are most likely context-specific.)

Why don’t dogs view humans as conspecifics? The authors theorize that dogs differentiate between humans and dogs due to the domestication process. Domestic dogs were selected over the centuries for their cooperation skills with humans and seem to have lost much of their cooperation skills with other dogs along the way: some domestic dogs will fiercely guard food from other dogs and feral dogs seldom hunt cooperatively. Dogs do, however, hunt cooperatively with humans. Especially for breeds in the “sporting group“, dogs will share and even surrender “prey” (whether that be toys or actual prey) to humans.

In summary, these authors did not conduct an experiment to explain why dogs don’t view humans as “one of them” but their study did strongly conclude that dogs do not behave as if humans and dogs are interchangeable in their eyes. These findings cast serious doubt on trainers and dog professional who use pack hierarchies, anthropomorphisms and/or dominance theories to explain and modify dog behavior. It appears that the relationship between dogs and humans is much more sophisticated than those out-dated and myth-based ideologies: using science-based behavior management and modification techniques should be paramount for any dog owner, trainer, veterinary staff, grooming staff, etc.