People and dogs: understanding our bond

Thursday, April 17, 2014
by Diane Boudreau

Dogs in a shelter

Have you ever felt like your pet dog was reading your mind? If you have, you certainly aren’t alone. Many people tell stories about how their dogs give them extra attention when they are feeling sad. Other dogs get nervous when their owners are preparing for a trip. They seem to know that their owners are leaving them. Some dogs are even unfriendly to people their owners don’t like.

A dog’s ability to understand and respond to its owner is amazing. Dogs can even follow a person’s pointing finger, which is not an easy task. Scientists have not even been able to train chimps to do that.

It’s no surprise, then, that dogs are considered “man’s best friend.” And it’s no surprise that many people think their behavior is unique among animals.

Clive Wynne, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, disagrees.

“I don’t deny that dogs have a remarkable ability to know what people are up to. But I do deny that they have new, special skills,” he says.

Wynne has studied dog behavior and human-dog relationships for more than 10 years. He is the proud adoptive “parent” of a shelter mutt named Xephos. And he is the director of research for Wolf Park in Indiana.

Wolves are the ancestors of dogs. They share many traits with our beloved pets. But they don’t share the same bond with people. Wynne’s work with wolves helped him form his views about dog behavior.

“I study wolves that have been hand-reared by people. They’re really responsive to humans. Wolves are every bit as good as dogs at following what people are up to,” he explains. “You don’t see it in a typical wolf because they don’t grow up around people.”

He says that a dog who grows up without ever meeting a person will act just like a wolf does around people—nervous and unresponsive.

But if wolves are just as trainable as dogs, why are they rarely kept as pets? People fear wolves, but take their dogs to parks and hiking trails, dress them up in Halloween costumes, and photograph them peeping from celebrity purses. Wynne says it’s partly due to differences between how dogs and wolves grow up.

“Wolves grow up quickly. There is only a short period in which there is a willingness to learn who you can be friends with,” he says. “Dog development is slowed down, so it’s easy to tame them. Any dog that is around people is easy to tame—we don’t even think of it as ‘taming.’”

Although dogs may not have special mental skills, they definitely have a special relationship with people. Wynne studies this bond between dogs and their humans.

“I’m interested in what dogs do for people, and what people do for dogs,” he notes.

For example, while dogs are fairly easy to train, many develop problem behaviors, like extreme separation anxiety. Psychologists have developed many techniques for handling problem behaviors in humans. Usually these involve rewards to get people to behave better. Wynne is working to develop a similar field of science related to dog behavior.

“Why do people misbehave? Often it’s because they experience some positive consequence for doing so, even if it’s only the attention of their caregivers. We are applying these behavior modification techniques to dogs for behaviors like extreme thunderstorm phobia, or excessive tail-chasing,” Wynne says.

This kind of training might be especially helpful in animal shelters. Certain types of dogs are more likely to get adopted than others. For instance, puppies are more popular than adult dogs. And certain breeds, such as pit bulls, are considered less desirable. Behavior is important, too.

“If you’re a cute dog, you can get away with anything,” Wynne explains. “For ugly dogs, lots of behaviors matter. Keep your kennel clean. Don’t lick yourself or your cage.”

Wynne has been working with animal shelters to improve the odds that dogs will be adopted. He and his team have trained dogs to behave in certain ways. They keep track of those dogs to see whether their new behaviors help them get adopted.

Now he is focusing his efforts on ensuring that the adoption will stick. Just because someone takes a dog home doesn’t mean the dog will stay there. Sometimes people decide that they don’t like how the dog behaves outside of the shelter, or they just don’t manage to become friends. Return rates of shelter dogs can be high—sometimes more than 30 percent.

“It’s one thing to get adopted, but many dogs that are adopted get returned. We are looking at what to do to help form a bond between people and the dog so they can live happily ever after,” Wynne says.

Clive Wynne's dog Xephos
Clive Wynne's dog Xephos

He is working with other researchers at ASU and with the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA. They want to find out if exercising with a newly adopted dog helps form a bond between the dog and the new owner.

“There is a health benefit to owning a dog—people who have dogs exercise more,” Wynne explains. “We invite people to exercise with their newly adopted dogs. We want to know, do they have lower return rates?”

You can try this for yourself if you have a pet. When you play with your pet, do you feel closer to it? If not, what does make you feel connected to your pet? You can ask your friends the same question and see what the most common answer is.

Can't get enough about dogs? Read "10 things you probably didn't know about dogs"