How Did Dogs Become Our Best Friends?

Dr. Brian Hare studies dogs' uncanny ability to understand our gestures

Posted Sep 15, 2015

Dogs are absolutely unique in their relationship with humans. Only dogs, as compared to other animals, will work for our praise. Dogs cooperate with our directions and miss us when we are gone. When I return home, my dog gyrates wildly and explodes with affection. Dogs make excellent companions. They sit next to us and even seem to console us when we are sad. Ever wondered about this? This unique bond between human and dog? How dogs became man’s best friend?

Apparently, Brian Hare, at Duke University, has been thinking about this very question. In fact, he has built an academic career on it. By combining observation, experimentation, and speculation, Dr. Hare has formed a theory explaining human-dog communications. All of this is explained in his book, The Genius of Dogs, and an accompanying college course available online at Coursera.

He began with his own dog, Oreo. Dr. Hare observed that Oreo followed his directions when he pointed at a ball. Oreo followed Brian’s finger and picked up the ball. Oreo did not stop, smell his owner's finger, and turn away. He understood Brian’s intent. He understood that pointing symbolized intentionality, and he followed the pointed finger to the ball and picked it up. This is abstract thinking. This is being able to hold a symbol in the mind and understand its meaning. At the time, Brian was an undergraduate working with a developmental psychologist. His teacher recognized this as a step in infant development, and they both seized the opportunity for a research program.

In his early experiments, Dr. Hare designed experimental conditions to isolate the cues that dogs were using to find objects. He hid pieces of food in one of several different opaque containers and then gazed or pointed to the right container. Dogs consistently followed the human pointing even over their own sense of smell. Dr. Hare then compared dogs to other species, such as chimps, wolves, and foxes, on this task. He found that none of these other animals were as successful as dogs at reading human gestures. Only human infants read the nonverbal communication of human adults as well as dogs. Dr. Hare built on these experiments and others to develop an evolutionary model. He speculates that dogs co-evolved with humans, and that the relationship was bi-directional. In other words, humans did not seek out dogs and condition them to hunt, work, and protect us. But, more likely, friendly dogs started hanging out around humans and eating our scraps. The friendliest dogs approached humans, became their friends, and so began generations of natural and artificial selection. These friendly dogs bred with each other, continued to live alongside humans, and over time, became better and better at reading our gestures.

All of this makes for fascinating reading, lots of fun games you can play with your dog, and valuable insight into the inductive-deductive logic behind social science research. I highly recommend taking a look at Brian Hare’s book and his many posts on the internet. Happy reading!