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Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?

Not everyone considers dogs to be friends, and dogs are picky themselves.

Luis Molinero/Shutterstock
Source: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock

She loves me, she loves me not

Dogs don't like me. I always read that they're unconditional lovers and love everyone, but they won't come near me. Sometimes they just stand a few feet away and bark, and when I approach them, they move away. Is there something wrong with me? My friends laugh at me and tell me everything is okay, it's all about the dog, but sometimes I just want to have a dog come up to me and wag his tail and be my friend."

"Why do dogs hate me? I’ve never petted one without it turning its head away, and if a dog sees that I’m the one putting food in its bowl, it won’t eat it."

Every now and again, I receive an email from someone who asks something along the lines of "Why do media and many people claim dogs are our best friends and that they love unconditionally?" People also ask this type of question when I give talks. Their queries are totally understandable, because It's easy to find these sorts of uncritical claims all over the place.

For example:

The list goes on and on, and these myths aren't good for dogs or for humans.

Calling dogs our best friends and claiming they love unconditionally are misleading falsehoods (among many others). They misrepresent many humans and their feelings about dogs, and they misrepresent dogs for who they truly are and what they feel. For example, a recent issue of Life with the title "Dogs: Why We Need Them. Why They Need Us" portrays these myths. The line is catchy, and the description of this collection of essays begins, "We love them, and they love us. Discover the meaning of the special bond between humans and dogs — delightful pets, dedicated workers, devoted companions — in this heartwarming new Special Edition from LIFE..." A more accurate depiction of what we know about dog-human relationships is that some people love dogs, and some dogs love us. Making sweeping statements that suggest that we — all (or even most) people — love dogs and all (or even most) dogs unconditionally love us is an inaccurate portrayal of what we really know from many studies of dog-human relationships and dog behavior.

Some reasons why dogs aren't our best friends and don't love us unconditionally

I've been thinking about dog-human relationships and dog behavior for a long while, and I remember that when I first heard dogs are our best friends and love us unconditionally, I felt very uncomfortable. Concerning their being our best friends, consider the extent of global dog abuse and cruelty and the horrific things some people do to their own companion dogs and to others. Reading about this sort of violence is very difficult, but sadly it's a real phenomenon that needs to be understood in order to put an end to it. I always recommend that people be forewarned before reading stories about any type of animal cruelty.

Focusing more on dogs as unconditional lovers, consider the vast number of dog bites and other injuries to humans for which dogs are responsible (please also see "Dog Bites: Comprehensive Data and Interdisciplinary Analyses" for detailed analyses of global statistics about dog bites1). In addition, consider dogs who have been abused and for whom it's very difficult to find a "forever home," or dogs who take a long while to warm up to some people, if ever, including those well-meaning humans who rescue them. Anyone who's rescued a dog who's had a rough life knows that some dogs eventually warm up to them and to other humans, whereas others never do. To refer to them as loving unconditionally doesn't characterize them as who they truly are. Furthermore, it's estimated that approximately 80 percent of the world's dogs are free-ranging, and many are almost completely or totally on their own. Some are friendly toward humans, and others are not, just like homed dogs.

These sorts of misrepresentations also have other consequences. For example, I've had some people say to me that they love dogs, but dogs don't ever warm up to them. While some of them accept this and move on, a few have asked me something like, "Is there something wrong with me?" I say to them, "No, there's nothing wrong with you." I explain that some dogs are very picky about their human friends, and they're not the only ones who feel badly about canine rejection. Years ago, I met a dogless man at a dog park who came to learn how to interact with dogs before he adopted one. He was concerned that dogs didn't seem to like him and wanted to be sure that when he brought a dog home, they'd be able to develop a strong bond and have good lives together. I was surprised when he told me why he visited the dog park, and extremely pleased he was doing his homework before assuming responsibility for a dog.

All in all, it's essential to think of humans and dogs as unique individuals, and when we do this, it's not surprising that some humans — we really don't know how many — simply don't like dogs, and it's also not surprising that not all dogs love unconditionally.

Where to from here?

"If we are really so unwilling or unable to imagine the perspective of another being, we will only ever see ourselves." (Dr. Alexandra Horowitz)

"One of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs centers on their marked differences in behavior, personalities, and how they adjust to living in a human-dominated world."

I look forward to more studies of dog-human relationships and the ways in which dogs express their feelings, ranging from love to indifference to what some might call hate, of human beings. The indifference and hate might be related to the early experiences of individual dogs that resulted in extreme stress, fear, and physical abuse. When we view dogs as individuals and the relationships they form or don't form, this information may well be used to rehabilitate them so that they can at least form some sort of friendly relationships with some humans and with some dogs.

I'm not trying to be a naysayer, but it's essential to accurately represent the nature and variability of dog-human relationships and who dogs are and what they feel. When we do this and pay careful attention to the nature and variability of dog-human relationships and the incredible variability among the personalities of different dogs, including differences among litter mates, siblings, and members of the same breed, we gain an appreciation for the differences that are clearly present. It's these variations that make these types of studies incredibly fascinating and important. There surely isn't one type of dog-human relationship, and talking about "the dog" is very misleading.

In a very interesting essay called "Is This Dog Actually Happy?" Barnard College dog researcher Dr. Alexandra Horowitz asks: "What is it like to be a dog?" She writes, "I’ve been in search of the answer to that puzzling question by way of science. I’m a researcher of dog behavior and cognition: I study how dogs perceive the world and interact with one another and with people. Even in those moments when I wrest myself away from my subjects, the question stirs in my head. For everywhere I look, I find myself faced with dogs." She also notes, "Weirdly, the omnipresence of my favorite subject has begun making me grumpy, not elated. As dogs themselves produce a profound anti-grumpiness in me, I began to wonder why. Why can’t I stand to look at one more photo of a 'funny dog'?"

I share Dr. Horowitz's sentiments, and I'm tired and sometimes get grumpy about hearing that dogs are humans' best friends or that dogs are unconditional lovers. She also writes that Wesleyan philosopher Dr. Lori Gruen has noted, "to be seen as something other than what one is, or to be the object of laughter, robs one of dignity. Such treatment may not be mortifying to the dog, perhaps (in fact, that’s a legitimate question, whether dogs can feel mortified; I remain agnostic); but it is degrading to the species." Failing to appreciate dogs as unique individuals misrepresents them, and everyone I know who shares their life with a dog(s) knows this. It also is degrading.

Please stay tuned for more discussion of these and other topics that focus on dog-human relationships and dog behavior. Canine science is a rapidly developing field, and almost daily something appears in my email inbox about research in this area. Available data make it very clear that dogs are not necessarily our best friends and are not unconditional lovers, so it's high time to recognize these facts and learn more about why this is so.

We owe it to dogs to learn more about the various relationships they form with humans and more about who they are and what they feel. We need to better understand their perspective and how they sense their world. As we do, it will surely help us appreciate that there likely are very good reasons why not all humans consider dogs to be their best friends, and why not all dogs are unconditional lovers.

As we learn more about dog-human relationships and dog behavior, there will be many valuable lessons about how to form and maintain the closest and best possible reciprocal social bonds given who the individual dog is and who the humans with whom they interact are, and it will be a win-win for all.


1The World health Organization (WHO) reports "There are no global estimates of dog bite incidence, however studies suggest that dog bites account for tens of millions of injuries annually. In the United States of America for example, approximately 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year. Of these, nearly 885 000 seek medical care; 30 000 have reconstructive procedures; 3–18% develop infections and between 10 and 20 fatalities occur. Other high-income countries such as Australia, Canada and France have comparable incidence and fatality rates."