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Dog-Human Relationships From the Dog's Point of View

From a dog's perspective, humans may over-play our own importance.

Key points

  • Many people exaggerate how important they are to their dog's well-being, new research suggests.
  • The behavior of homed dogs doesn't always explain dog behavior because the majority of dogs are free-ranging.
  • There's no "universal" dog and people must be cautious of wide-ranging generalizations about dogs.
Jamie Street, Upsplash, free download.
Source: Jamie Street, Upsplash, free download.

A new study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science by Dr. Lorena Saavedra-Aracena and two colleagues called "Do dog-human bonds influence movements of free-ranging dogs in wilderness?" caught my eye because of its wide-ranging messages about the behavior of free-ranging dogs when compared to confined "homed" dogs. Here I offer a brief summary of the findings of this landmark work and include the abstract below.1

Another summary of this research states, "Dog owners tend to overestimate the bond they have with their pet, which could have implications for preventing dogs from roaming far from home or attacking animals."

Here are some of the findings of this seminal study that was conducted on 41 village dogs living on Navarino Island in southern Chile. The mean age of the dogs was 5 years (plus or minus 2.8) and 63 percent were males. The dogs' movements were measured using GPS tracking.

  • The Monash Dog-Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS) questionnaire that is often used to measure the strength of attachment was a poor predictor of a dog's home range, distance to home, and access to nature and other animals.
  • The exuberance of greeting a human was not a measure of how much dogs missed their humans. Dogs who roamed the most were often the happiest to see their humans.
  • Low bonding scores correlated with larger roaming distances. However, the owners of these dogs had assessed their pets’ attachment to them as much stronger than they really are.
  • Older male dogs wandered more than others.

There also is an important practical message in these data. The researchers write that their study "highlights the necessity of wildlife management strategies considering the cultural context. In specific terms, we recommend to foster the knowledge of the importance of bonds between dogs and their owners in educational campaigns on responsible dog ownership."

The Importance of Taking the Dogs' Perspective

One reason this study is so important is that homed dogs comprise only a small percentage—around 25 percent—of the billion or so dogs who live on our planet and they roam freely in most societies, so it's essential to avoid making wide-ranging generalizations about dogs based on the behavior of confined homed dogs who typically are used in the laboratory and other behavioral studies. There is no "universal dog" and it's essential and fun to study free-ranging dogs to learn more about the incredible diversity of dog behavior.2

One of the researchers' most important messages is that the way in which caregivers perceived the bond they had with their free-ranging dogs did not predict the dog's movements. Another is that standard scales that measure the nature of human-dog relationships do not apply to free-ranging dogs. And yet another is that there is an important practical side to this research in that dogs do interact with wildlife and it's essential to be aware of this and to learn how to control their access to these other animals.

It's important to pay close attention to the fact that many humans exaggerate how much their dogs like or love them—they're not unconditional lovers, and some humility would go a long way in bettering the ways in which we treat dogs. They're not our best friends and when we ask dogs what they think about us they clearly tell us so. Indeed, many dogs would do very well without us as artificial selection gives way to natural selection, but that's another story.3

Taking the dogs' perspectives is essential as this and other studies clearly show. When we do so it will be a win-win for all because dogs must have a say in correcting the ways in which we misinterpret and mislabel their behavior and how we assess their feelings toward us. Dogs and humans have to agree about the nature of their relationship. Simply put, it's not all about us, nor should it be.

References

Notes

1) The abstract for this essay reads: Domestic dogs have a close and mutualistic relationship with humans. When unconfined, they usually stay close to the owner’s home, but some undertake intensive forays in nature with negative impacts on wildlife. Predictors for such problematic dogs in previous research concentrated on dog characteristics and husbandry. Here we additionally explored which aspects of the dog-human bond influenced the movements of free-ranging village dogs in southern Chile. Using an interdisciplinary framework, we assessed the strength of this relationship through (i) attachment behaviours performed during the Strange Situation Procedure (SSP, dog’s perception of the relationship) and (ii) the Monash Dog-Owner Relationship Scale questionnaire (MDORS, owner’s perception) in 41 dog-owner dyads while remotely monitoring the dogs’ movements using GPS tracking (n = 36394 locations). We found that 39 % of dogs had > 5 % of their locations in natural areas, but only three individuals exhibited overnight excursions. Home range size (1.8-4227 ha) and mean distances to the owner’s home (0-28.4 km) varied greatly among individuals. Through generalized linear models we identified that dogs had larger home ranges, moved farther away from home or accessed nature more (i.e., they exhibited more intensive forays) when they explored more, greeted their owners intensively, and expressed more passive behaviours in the presence of their owners (SSP). However, the MDORS questionnaire was a poor predictor of home range, distance to home, and access to nature. When considering the dogs’ background, older dogs, males, and dogs that got missing more frequently exhibited more intensive forays. Compared to SSP results in confined dogs, we suggest that owners of free-ranging dogs do not play an important role as an attachment figure. We conclude that the dog-owner bond indeed influences roaming behaviour in dogs. This highlights the necessity of wildlife management strategies considering the cultural context. In specific terms, we recommend to foster the knowledge of the importance of bonds between dogs and their owners in educational campaigns on responsible dog ownership, along with biological (age, sex) and behavioural characteristics (exploration, getting missing). That way, awareness campaigns can focus on owners of possible problematic dogs.

2) For more information on the behavior of free-ranging dogs click here and also see A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans.

3) Also see "As Dogs Go Wild in a World Without Us, How Might They Cope?" and "How Will Dogs Reshape Nature Without Humans to Control Them?"

Bekoff, Marc. "What Do All These Dog Studies Really Mean?" (We must be careful about making sweeping generalizations.)

_____. Why It's Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.

_____. Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us?

_____. The Perils of Mislabeling Dog-Appropriate Behavior.

_____. Do Your Dog and You Agree About What You Want Them to Do?

Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. Princeton University Press, 2021.

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