More research on why humans bond with dogs

The latest viral news story this week, about a black lab that stood guard over its dead canine companion on a busy Los Angeles road, once again highlighted the virtues of dogs that forever fascinate many Americans. The dog’s loyalty won over millions of news watchers, who saw videos and pictures of the sad scene of a dead dog and its frightened companion not budging from the scene.

Would a human do that? Or would we just drive off? We would like to think our good Samaritan instincts would prevail, but we know that with a dog, that type of devotion is unquestionable. And so our love of dogs increases even more when such stories surface. But remember, dogs have been domesticated by us for 10,000 years, and there is solid evidence the reasons are symbiotic, if not more.

I found another peer-reviewed article this week, “Understanding dog–human companionship,” written by Michael J. Dotson and Eva M. Hyatt, and published in 2008 in the United States Journal of Business Research ( volume 61, pages 457 – 466). (Sorry folks this is “behind the firewall,” but you can likely find it if you have access to university databases.) The article reports on a survey of  749 dog owners and the owners’ interactions with their dogs. The researchers found seven underlying dimensions defining our relations with dogs: symbiotic relationship, dog-oriented self concept, anthropomorphism, activity/youth, boundaries, specialty purchases, and willingness to adapt. I was less interested in the findings, and more interested in the background research uncovered.

How important are pets, and dogs in particular to people in this country? The article noted that approximately 70 million homes in 2002 reported having at least one pet as a member of the household. One author quoted, Brickel (1986), suggests that animals provide “one highly reliable association in a person’s life … more consistent and reliable than human–human.” Maybe that is why television viewers were so moved by that loyal black lab; we see something in dogs we fail to get from each other.

According to Dotson and Hyatt, it also turns out women serve as the primary caregivers for dogs in 73 percent of U.S. pet-owning households (US Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, 2002), and thus will score higher on all measured dimensions of dog companionship. Younger people also score stronger measurements of attachment to dogs, likely because of their ability to provide more time to the relationship. The paper further notes that researchers’ perceptions of the significant, distinctive role that pets play in people’s lives indicates we must recognize this relationship as one that “augments relationships with other humans.”

The researchers also point to findings that show that dogs create interactions among previously unacquainted people (old trick — get a puppy and make new friends) and help to establish trust among  newly acquainted people (you always will talk to a dog owner won’t you — a nice icebreaker for all people of all races, ages, and genders).

All of this makes me sad thinking of my short-lived relationship with AK, a lovely mutt who I could not keep in my apartment in 2010. He tore up the place, and I could not bear to leave him alone in a crate during the day, so I returned him to his owners hoping he would find a nice outdoor home. My status as a non-dog owner will change once I finish this program at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

AK resting (so calm)
AK and Rudy, September 2010