Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Can Dogs Form True Friendships with Other Dogs

Despite some scientific doubts, dogs can form true friendships with other dogs.

In recent times we have heard stories and seen videos of dogs engaging in what looks like extreme demonstrations of loyalty and friendship for another dog. For example, from Japan, following a devastating earthquake, came the video of a spaniel-type dog standing guard over an injured dog. From China, and from New York, came videos of dogs disrupting traffic on busy highways as they stood protecting a canine friend who had been hit by a car when crossing the road.

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 While to the average person these actions appear to be the kind of devotion and faithfulness that a friend would give to another friend, there are scientists who seem to doubt that such friendship is possible between dogs.  Their conclusions are based upon research on the social structure of wolves, such as that done by Traci Cipponeri and Paul Verrell of Washington State University at Pullman. They concluded that among wolves, except for individuals that were related to one another, their social interactions could be described as uneasy alliances between individuals with both shared and conflicting interests. It is much more like people working in the same corporation who work together toward similar goals while each has his own ambitions to get ahead of everyone else. There are clearly social interactions here, but not true friendships except with those other wolves who are bound by direct kinship. Fortunately, dogs are not wolves.

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 In the thousands of years since humans first domesticated dogs we have genetically manipulated them to socialize easily and to show friendliness almost indiscriminately. Dogs that have been properly socialized will congenially approach virtually anything that is alive, regardless of its species, and, unless they receive hostile signals, they will attempt to establish a good-natured relationship.

 The bond that dogs can establish with other species is often dramatic and poignant. For example there is the case of a Labrador Retriever named Puma. One cold day in Bristol, England, a gang of boys stole a kitten, threw it into a pond and waited to watch it drown. Suddenly, Puma dashed into the pond to grab the kitten. He must have thought that this was some sort of accident because he brought the kitten out of the water and laid it at the boys' feet. They just laughed and threw it back into the water. Puma again leapt into the water, but this time swam across to the other side of the pond with the kitten and ran home with it. When his family opened the door he rushed past them and laid the kitten down next to the heat vent. He would not let his family take the kitten out of his sight, so they felt that they had to keep it. They named the kitten Lucky, because he was so lucky to find a friend like Puma. The dog and cat established a life-long bond, playing together, sleeping together and apparently drawing comfort from each other. This is consistent with the idea that although dogs are happiest when they are in a social situation, the species that that they are interacting with is less important than the quality of the interactions.

 This brings us back to the issue of whether dogs can form close friendships with other dogs. Let me just offer the case of Mickey and Percy which certainly suggests that this is so. Mickey was a Labrador retriever owned by William Harrison and Percy was a Chihuahua that had been given to his daughter Christine. Normally their size difference might prevent the dogs from becoming friends, however in this instance they became playful pals. The dogs would chase each other around, or Mickey would lie on the ground and let Percy pretend to be dominant as the little dog jumped on him and mouthed his ears. They ate together and when they slept Percy would lay against the bigger dog to stay warm. One warm summer evening, the dogs were out on the front lawn playing one of their favorite chase games, and, as he often did, Percy made a wide circle at high speed in an attempt to get behind Mickey. Unfortunately, this time his path took him out into the street and he was hit by a car.

 The first one on the scene was Mickey who barked and whined and nosed his little friend. Then, while Christine stood by weeping, and Mickey watched attentively, her father placed the dead dog in a crumpled sack and buried him in a shallow grave in the garden. The depression that had fallen on the family seemed to affect, not only the humans, but also Mickey. The big dog sat despondently staring at the grave of his friend, while everyone else went to bed. He would not come into the house when he was called,  so William left back entrance open except for the screen door, in order to allow him to hear Mickey if he decided that he wanted to come into the house.

 A few hours later William was awakened by frantic whining and scuffling outside the house. When he investigated the noise he saw, to his horror that the sack that he had used to bury Percy was now laying empty beside the opened grave. Next to it he saw Mickey, who was in a state of great agitation, standing over Percy's body frantically licking his face, nuzzling and poking at the limp form in what looked like a canine attempt to give the dead dog the kiss of life. Tears filled the man's eyes as he watched this futile expression of hope and love. He sadly walked over to move Mickey away when he saw, what looked like a spasm or twitch. Then Percy weakly lifted his head and whimpered. It was his friendship with Percy that had kept Mickey close that night. There was also some deep sense within him that had sensed that there was a faint spark of life in the little dog combined with some mysterious instinct to return his companion to him that had told him what to do. He would not give up on his friend. Because of this bond between dogs they would be able to romp and play again, and once more share the warmth of life and their canine companionship.

 Is this conclusive evidence that dogs can form bonds of friendship with other dogs? Perhaps not — but it does give us something to think about.

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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