Dogs are not just pets – they’re family members. But what’s going on between those fuzzy ears?
Dogs are a beloved part of our families. Humans and dogs have lived together for 30,000 years, with dogs tracing their roots back to their ancestors, the wolves. It began with ancient wolves learning to forage the scraps of early hunters-gatherers, in turn providing warning and defense against other predators. Fast forward to the 21st century and you’ll find that dogs are common fixtures in almost half of American households.
We’ve come a long way from mere co-dependency. As much as we love our dogs, it seems like they love us right back, right? Consider how excited they get to see their family, thumping their tails and spinning in circles. Or how they invade our laps, or lick our faces, or follow us from room to room. But since dogs can’t tell us what’s going on inside their furry heads, can we ever be sure?
Thanks to recent developments in brain imaging technology, the answer is yes. Scientists are studying the brains of dogs and beginning to get a better picture of the happenings inside the canine cranium.
The studies show that not only do dogs seem to love us back, they actually see us as their family. Remember, dogs are inherently pack animals and we are their pack. Dogs, it seems, rely on humans more than they do their own kind for affection, protection and everything in between.
It’s All In The Nose
Recent neuroimaging studies about canine odor processing, conducted at Emory University, provide strong evidence that dogs are extremely devoted to humans. Because dogs navigate the world through their noses, the way they process smell offers a lot of potential insight into social behavior. Scientists used MRI machines and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure the neural responses of dogs to the smell of people and dogs, both familiar and unknown.
The scientists found that dog owners’ aroma actually sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Of all the smells to take in, and dogs take in a lot (you would too if you had over 220 million olfactory receptors – compared to a human’s 5 million) dogs actually prioritized the hint of humans over anything or anyone else. We are their reward.
Now hear this…
In Budapest, researchers at Eotvos Lorand University studied canine brain activity in response to different human and dog sounds, including voices, barks and the meaningful grunts and sighs both species emit.
One of the many surprising findings the study revealed was the similar ways in which dog and human brains processed emotionally laden vocal sounds. Researchers found that happy sounds in particular light up the auditory cortex in both of us. Dogs are actually physically wired to pick up on our moods and mood changes. They know when we need cheering up, or comfort, or protection.
“It’s very interesting to understand the tool kit that helps such successful vocal communication between two species,” Attila Andics, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, said. “We didn’t need neuroimaging to see that communication works [between dogs and people], but without it, we didn’t understand why it works. Now we’re really starting to.”
Behavior research also supports the recent discoveries in neuroscience. According to Andics, dogs interact with their human caregivers in the same way babies do their parents. Think of the last time a big storm rolled in, or fireworks on the fourth of July. When dogs are scared or worried, they run to their owners, just as a distressed toddler might make hide behind their parents. This doesn’t hold true for other animals. “Scaredy” cats, as well as horses, will run away.
Look Into My Eyes
Dogs are also the only non-primate animal to look people in the eyes. This is a unique behavior between dogs and humans — dogs seek out eye contact from people, but not their biological dog parents.
“Bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets,” said Andics.
It Takes Two To Tango
Scientists have also looked at the dog-human relationship from the human side. Dogs aren’t the only ones acting on, or reciprocating, feelings – people are doing the same with their dogs. In a Massachusetts General Hospital study, researchers measured human brain activity in response to photos of dogs and children. Study participants were women who’d had dogs and babies for at least two years. Both types of photos sparked activity in brain regions associated with emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction. Both of their children made them equally happy, non-furry and furry; two legs and four.
It’s Written All Over Your Face…or is it?
We might think we have our four-legged friends all figured out, but that’s not necessarily the case. For instance, that drooped ear, shoulder hunched, tail tucked look we think signifies guilt? Most behavior experts agree that that requires a multifaceted notion of self-awareness that dogs probably don’t have. Your dog is probably just reacting to your mood change and preparing for the scolding. Apparently digging through the trash is not acceptable behavior. Woof.
However, just as we know our human family pretty well, our instinctive hunches about dog behavior are often correct.
“Sometimes our intuition about what’s going on inside dogs’ heads is dead-on,” said Laurie Santos, the lead researcher at Yale’s Canine Cognition Center. “Like, that dogs are seeking out help from us — and that’s true based on studies — which is different from even their closest relatives, wolves.”
While we may not know exactly what is going on inside our dogs’ heads, we can relish the fact that we know our pets love us as much as we hoped, maybe even more. They see us as family. And to us? They’re more than just man’s best friend…they’re our babies.