02 Jan Why Humans and Dogs Get Along
Remember the last time you saw a dog trot over with a toy in its mouth, wag its tail, and growl in that playful little growly noise they do? Wasn’t it adorable?
Do you also remember a time you saw a dog slink away, food in its mouth, tail between its legs, growling in that really scary growly noise they do? Wasn’t it gut-wrenching?
That might not seem impressive, but actually, it really really is. Humans are able to read dogs super well, more than we can any other animal on earth. That includes their bitter rivals the cats, which have also been with humanity for thousands of years. Heck, it even includes our closest relatives; we can read a dog better than we can a chimpanzee or an orangutan.
So, why is this, exactly? Why do we have such a connection with dogs that we don’t even have with our own family? This is actually a difficult question to answer. Scientists have found graves where humans were buried with their dogs, and they go back 14,000 years. But that’s after dogs and humans had formed their relationship; the meeting and mingling and loving occurred before even that, and the hunter-gathering humans who first tamed them didn’t leave behind any scientific journals detailing their experiments. Odd.
In lieu of that frustrating fact, modern scientists have turned to genetics to shed some light on the matter. They looked at the DNA of dogs and compared it to their closest relatives, wolves, with whom they share 99.9% of DNA. Sure, humans can read the body language of wolves almost as well as dogs because they’re pretty much the same genetically. But wolves are less social than their dog cousins, so the bond that forms naturally between a human and a dog is harder to replicate. Somewhere in that 0.1% of DNA, there might be an answer to why that is.
Scientists ended up finding Chromosome 6, which contains 3 genes that code for hyper-sociability. These genes were are different from those on the Chromosome 6 in wolves and other feral canines. It’s very likely this variation made early dogs less afraid and more curious of those weird, two-legged primates that were always hanging around.
Oh, now would be a good time to point out that we ourselves are hyper-social compared to our previously-mentioned primate relatives (well, except for maybe the bonobos…but we’ll not get into that here).
Gradually, presumably, these two hyper-extraverted species got friendlier and formed a working relationship, hunting together and sharing the food. This type of mutually-beneficial relationship is not uncommon in nature, but what is uncommon is that we started to adore each other. We treat dogs the way we treat our own babies, with the cute voices and the silly games and the melting of our hearts whenever they look up at us with those big brown eyes…
Consequently, humans and dogs began to comprehend each other. We understand when a dog wants to play with the ball, and when it wants us to leave because it’s scared and doesn’t know us. They understand when we are happy because they exist and are adorable, and when we’re angry that they left a gift on the living room rug. We know “I wanna play” barks from “I’m gonna rip you apart if you don’t back off” barks. They know “you’re just the cutest little boy” talk from “you left a present on the living room rug” talk. The bond between us is so intense, we’re still together even though we lost the need for a working relationship long ago. We’re together because we love each other.
And there’s nothing else on earth like that.