Most dog lovers look at our dogs not just as dogs, but as part of the family. But do dogs look at us as part of their dog pack? Do they think we are some kind of weird dog member? Or do they realize that we are a separate species? If so, why do they become so crazy happy to see us when we return home?
Dogs became domesticated about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, but they are all descendants of a common wolf-like ancestor.
Some scientists believe that friendly wolves sought out humans (rather than humans making the first move). Dr. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, in their book “The Genius of Dogs” (published by Dutton), believe that wolves who were bold and yet friendly were the first ones tolerated by humans, whereas the bold yet aggressive ones were sure to be exterminated.
Over time, domestication caused these dogs to not only look different (floppy ears, splotchy coats, and wagging tails being a few of the developments), but to also behave differently due to changes in their psychology – the dogs evolved the ability to read human gestures.
This ability is quite remarkable as even chimpanzees and bonobos can’t read our human gestures as readily as dogs can – they’re as good as human infants in their ability to pay attention to us. They can even detect gestures as subtle as a change in eye direction. This attention and understanding is a large part of the reason why they can communicate so effectively with us over other species. Dogs even understand when we apologize to them, as stated in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s “The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving” – if we accidentally step on their tail or hurt them and say “I’m sorry” over and over again, we are usually rewarded with a lick on the hand or face that says “apology accepted.”
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the author of “How Dogs Love Us” states that there is a clear evolution of dogs from their wolfish ancestors that also contributes to their integration into our human lives. He used brain imaging research to study how dogs perceive us and his results show that when dogs are presented with certain smells in scanners, they can clearly tell the difference between dog scents and human scents.
Interestingly, the scent of a familiar human evokes a “reward response” in their brains. “No other scent did that, not even that of a familiar dog,” Berns stated. “It’s not the case that they see us as “part of their pack as dogs,” they know that we’re something different – there’s a special place in the brain just for us.”
His work has found that dogs are not devoted to us just for their survival and scavenging tendencies. “What we’re finding with the imaging work is that dogs love their humans – and not just for food. They love the company of humans simply for its own sake.”
It is evident that dogs are able to clearly distinguish humans from other dogs. Dog can perceive other dogs as a separate group from humans. Dogs will also seek the help of humans over another dog which is a sign that they understand that humans have resources that dogs do not, further confirming that they understand that humans are a separate entity. Given that dogs are by nature a very social species, it makes sense that they treat their human family as part of their social network – as part of their pack. They view their own existence in terms of their hierarchy within that pack, and live in the same way – wolves in the wild live in family units too.
Many experts have agreed that dogs do indeed feel love and happiness when they see their humans, in a manner that is comparable to what humans experience and feel. Brain imaging research has shown this response repeatedly. When a dog goes insane with excitement and happiness to see you, it is because that’s the way they communicate their feelings. They have a child-like innocence and view of the world and show no restraint in displaying their joy at seeing their loved one.