Are dogs getting more like us all the time? Trainer and behaviourist Carol Price investigates.
Some owners treat their dogs exactly as if they were humans; others regard them as distinctly lower beings.
But the truth of how similar to humans modern dogs really are may be more surprising than you think.
Could it be that as well as being more like us than we often give them credit for, dogs are continuously evolving to be more human-like due to their constant need to please us, understand us, or adjust to our desires in order to survive?
New studies constantly reveal the ways in which dogs are similar to us, in everything from the commonest genetic disorders or illnesses they will suffer, to their specific emotions or mental outlooks. Studies also reveal how they are getting better at reading human behaviour, from our prevailing moods or immediate intentions, to the likelihood that they will be able to pressurise us into giving them a biscuit. And I have to say, none of this surprises me at all!
Like many behaviourists, I began my studies into canine behaviour being constantly lectured on the crime of anthropomorphism - attaching human feelings or attributes to dogs or, indeed, animals in general. It was as if you could do nothing worse than dignify other animals with having anything akin to the psychological/emotional sensitivity, complexity, or intelligence found in humans.
The longer I lived and worked with dogs, however, the more I was forced to question this assumption. How can we ever know for sure the true extent to which dogs may, or may not, share more human-like traits, thoughts or feelings? All we can do is speculate.
Dogs strike me as being more emotionally intelligent - as well as psychologically more vulnerable - than people generally give them credit for. By closing our minds to this reality, as well as the possibility of dogs being prone to many of the same insecurities, fears, psychological flaws, and neuroses commonly experienced by humans, we do them an even greater injustice.
A shared early history
Why humans consider themselves so inherently different or special compared to any other animal on the planet has always fascinated me. After all, we are really just another animal ourselves, made from exactly the same basic components as all other forms of life on earth. Research has revealed not only that humans and dogs share well over 90 per cent of the same basic genetic material, but we even share 75 per cent of the same genes as a pumpkin!
Moreover, both humans and dogs, like most mammals, are thought to have evolved from the same common ancestor about 80 million years ago - a small, nocturnal, shrew-like creature - which is no doubt why human beings today still have 99 per cent genetically in common with mice, including the genes to make a tail! So, no animal on earth is inherently that different. All that happens is that, over time, one species develops a few genetic modifications in response to prevailing environmental challenges. And this in turn results in it gaining an evolutionary advantage over any other species it is sharing the planet with at a specific moment in time.
With humans, this advantage was simply a bigger brain; it gave us the ability to out-think other animals, and make things like tools, weapons, traps, and enclosures to bring them under our control, in a process known as domestication.
It also explains how domestic dogs - who in turn descended from wolves - eventually became a species of animal predominantly under our control, as opposed to the other way round, had nature given wolves the bigger brains instead.
The question we have to ask ourselves is why, out of all the animal species on the planet, did humans establish their closest bond with dogs? Most likely it's because dogs, over time, developed their own evolutionary advantage, namely being smarter than other animals at reading human behaviour, and using this skill for their own benefit.
This process of dogs ever adapting their behaviour to be more human-orientated remains ongoing. In every generation of dogs some new behaviour can develop that makes them even more in tune with humans. And it is the dogs who exhibit this behaviour that we will choose to keep or breed from, so that their genes pass on to the next generation.
Another factor that explains dogs' tendency to become increasingly more human-like is simply the way we raise domestic dogs, removing them from their canine families when they are very young, and making them live with humans instead. This is frequently at a stage where puppies, developmentally, are still imprinting (deciding what animal or species they are), on the basis of the animals that surround them during their earliest weeks of life.
When comparing dogs to humans, one of the most debatable issues remains their comparative levels of intelligence, and cognitive skills, as well as their ability to experience more complex emotions. But even here it is worth remembering that all behaviour in animals - including intelligence and emotions - originates from little more than basic brain structure and biology, which in turn keeps evolving with each new generation.
It could well be that over many, many years dogs, via evolutionary necessity, will become even more like us in their thought processes and behaviour. And anyone who thinks this would be totally impossible should remember that only around 80 million years ago - a relative blip in evolutionary terms - we ourselves were nothing more sophisticated than a small shrew scuttling around the surface of the planet.
How evolution works
To most of us, evolution - or the steady changing of animals from one thing to another over many generations - can appear a somewhat invisible process. And this is simply because some of the bigger changes in animals happen only very gradually, over hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years. And thus in any human lifetime we can see only a minute part of any larger evolutionary picture.
How evolution works is that with every new generation of animals born, subtle mutations or changes will occur in their genes, as well as the recently discovered phenomenon of epigenic activity. This is where different genes governing different biological functions, structures, or behaviours may, rather like a dimmer switch, be turned up or down in their potential or effect, or off altogether, according to the demands of an animal's immediate external environment. This is why, although - as highlighted in the main text - we may still possess the genes to make a tail, these remain switched off because we no longer need one.
Once a certain pattern/setting of genes is deemed most appropriate for an animal's survival, it will be passed down to the next generation, until yet another alteration needs to be made. Evolutionary possibilities are endless, not just including the extent to which dogs may become even more like us in the future but whether, over even longer time, humans may be superseded by another dominant species with an even bigger evolutionary advantage.
How dogs are like us
Scientific studies in recent years have made the following discoveries about dogs:
- They share around 94 per cent of the same genetic material as humans.
- They are just as prone to the following diseases or disorders: cancer, epilepsy, heart disease, allergies, and cataracts.
- They are born, like us, with a tendency to take a more pessimistic or optimistic view of life.
- A dog has the same level of intelligence as a five-month-old human baby.
- Dogs can recognise goal-directed behaviour - they know where to look and how to respond to people when it seems like something important might happen.
- They understand the need to look where a human being is pointing, something few other animals comprehend.
- They can read different emotions on a human face.
- Dogs can experience more complex emotions like jealousy and grief.
- They can suffer from depression like us.