How Do Dogs Perceive Us?
Dogs know that we’re something different and there’s a special place in the brain just for us
How Dogs See Humans?
In order to gain an appreciation for dog behavior, it’s important to understand that dogs are descended from wolves (or at least a common wolf-like ancestor). Clearly, the two species, separated by about 10,000 to 15,000 years, share a lot in common.
But, says Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us, there’s a fundamental difference between modern wolves and dogs.
A key aspect of Berns’ brain imaging research is to study how dogs perceive us. We humans know that dogs are a separate species, but are dogs cognizant of this as well? Or do they see us as members of their pack, or as some kind of weird dog?
According to Berns’ research, dogs that are presented with certain smells in scanners can clearly tell the difference between dogs and humans, and also discern and recognize familiar and strange odors. In particular, the scent of a familiar human evokes a reward response in the brain.
“No other scent did that, not even that of a familiar dog,” Berns said. “It’s not the case that they see us as ‘part of their pack as dogs,’ they know that we’re something different— there’s a special place in the brain just for us.”
Berns stresses that dogs are social with us not just because of their scavenging tendencies.
“What we’re finding with the imaging work is that dogs love their humans—and not just for food,” he says. “They love the company of humans simply for its own sake.”
Hekman says it’s hard to know what dogs are thinking, but she suspects they understand that we’re not quite like them. As evidence, she points to aggressiveness in dogs as it’s directed to other dogs and humans—differences that aren’t correlated. She says it’s quite common for a dog to have a problem with one and not the other.
In other words, dogs appear to perceive other dogs as one group, and humans as a separate group. What’s more, dogs will seek the help of humans and not other dogs—a possible sign that dogs understand that humans have resources that dogs do not, and are thus a different kind of social entity.
But do dogs see us as part of the pack?
“It’s important to note that a pack of wolves is a family—literally, usually mom, dad, puppies, and some young offspring from previous years who haven’t gone off on their own yet,” says Hekman. “Do dogs see us as part of their family? I think they do.”
So Happy to See Us
Virtually all experts agree that the happiness dogs feel is comparable to what humans experience, and that it’s similar to how humans feel towards each other.
“All the things that we’ve done with the brain imaging—where we present certain things to the dogs and map their reward responses—we see analogous brain responses in humans,” says Berns. “Seeing a person that’s a friend or someone you like, these feelings are exactly analogous to what a dog experiences.”
Berns says that dogs don’t have the same language capacities as humans, and that they’re not capable of representing things in their memory like we can. Because dogs don’t have labels or names for people, he suspects that they have an even purer emotional response; their minds aren’t filled with all sorts of abstract concepts.
A dog’s particular greeting, however, is dependent on several factors, such as the dog’s temperament, the personality of the owner, the nature of their relationship, the level of stress and anxiety, and the dog’s tendency/capacity for self-control.
It’s important to note, however, that stress manifests differently in dogs than it does in humans.
“The separation from the owner for the dog is not voluntary,” says Vallortigara. “It is always unnatural for a dog to detach and abandon the pack.”
Dogs will sometimes go solo on a temporary basis if they’re sufficiently motivated to do so, but they do it knowing that social contact can be resumed at virtually any time.
“The exaggerated level of greeting that can be observed in some dogs is likely due to the fact that they have not yet learned to accept the possibility of non-voluntary detachment,” says Vallortigara.
When trying to appreciate a dog’s over-the-top greeting, Hekman says we need to imagine what it was like for a dog to be alone all day while we were gone.
How to Greet Your Dog Back
It’s obviously important to respond to your dog when you get home, but according to Marcello Siniscalchi, a veterinary physician from the University of Bari, how you should react will depend on the context of the situation and the needs of the dog itself.
“The greeting ritual will vary from dog to dog because any individual dog perceives and reacts to detachment from the owner in a very personal way,” he said. “Some dogs need to be greeted, in others it is better to avoid any escalation in the level of excitation, others need to learn strategies for coping the stress associated with detachment.”
Hekman says there’s definitely a tension between our buttoned-down greeting rituals (“Hi, honey, I’m home!”) and theirs (“I want to lick you on the face repeatedly!”).
So it is important for you and your dog to create your own special greeting ritual.