Do Dogs Form “Real” Friendships?
I had an entirely different blog written and about to be posted, but there’s a swirl of discussion going on right now about an article that came out in Time Magazine by Carl Zimmer about “friendships” in animals. He has lots of good information from researchers who argue that true friendships are formed in many social species, including horses, dolphins, and baboons. I was a tad irritated at suggestions that “we” (scientists) haven’t accepted that friendships can be found in other animals until just recently…” look at the writings of Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal for example for exceptions to that… but in general it’s a truly good article.
But imagine my surprise when he writes that evidence of true friendships can not be found in dogs. He says: “.. most scientists think [they...dogs] fall short of true friendship….. noting a lack of evidence in dogs of constancy, reciprocity and mutual defense…” found in other species. In other words, dogs can’t form true friendships with us, or other dogs. It is true that dogs are less studied than many other species regarding their social relationships and that we can’t use anecdotal observations as substitutes for good data. But the article doesn’t say that there is not enough evidence to make conclusions about the social relationships of domestic dogs. It says “…most scientists think they [dogs] fall short of true friendship.” It also says “… dogs have become capable of being sweet and loyal to humans, but it’s likely that they treat us more as guardians than friends.” It is one thing to say that we don’t yet have the evidence, and yet another to make conclusions based on a lack of data-driven research.
If you want to read more about, this, go to my Facebook page. Carl has been good enough to join the conversation, which I greatly appreciate. My argument is that, if as the article states, true friendship requires “constancy, reciprocity and mutual defense,” then at least observationally we have ample suggestions that social relationships between some dogs are as strong as social relationships between some horses. I suggested on FB that the reason many scientists are hesitant to attribute “friendship” to dogs is not just the lack of data, but rather a scientific bias against domestic, familiar animals. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is as true in science as it is elsewhere.
As someone who has observed and worked with domestic dogs for over twenty three years, it is hard for me to imagine arguing that they can’t form social relationships analogous to friendships in our and other species. Lassie appeared to fall in love with Luke the day she met him, followed him everywhere, groomed him daily, paid attention to no other dogs and sank into what looked like a depressions when he died. That’s not data, but neither does it suggest that dogs aren’t capable of forming true friendships. I find myself somewhat amazed that we are even arguing this point. Of course we need more data, those of you who know me know I’ve been encouraging good research on canine behavior for 23 years, but concluding without data that dogs probably can’t form “real friendships?” Given that there is no data behind that either, I don’t see it as a supportable or reasonable conclusion. Especially given our observations, which may be anecdotal, but still are valuable (as were Jane Goodall’s observations of chimps.) If the article had said: “Although it appears that dogs form strong friendships, we need the same kind of data collected on them as we have of other species,” I’d have no problem with it.
Jump onto Facebook if you want to read Carl’s and others comments. I expect he is busy answering no small amount of email and comments on the subject!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. WILLIE IS WORKING SHEEP!!! Be still my heart, that’s about all I have to say. Granted, the sessions are short, painfully so, but he looks sound so far and he’s working as if he’d never had a year long break (it was a year ago last week he was injured) and it’s so much fun for both of us that we can hardly stand it. When I say “That’ll do” he runs to me, spins in happy circles and I clap my hands and we grin at each other and somehow my heart gets bigger in my chest and we float back to the house and life is good. I’ll never be able to work him for very long, and I’m sure we’ll have set backs, but just being able to work a little bit is more wonderful than I can say.
No work this weekend though, we’re off to the Big Apple for the Dog Writer’s of Association of America annual awards. Love Has No Age Limit is up for an award, as is a column that co-author Karen London and I wrote for the APDT Chronicle. FB readers have suggested I not wear jeans and my usual plaid shirts from LL Bean or Land’s End. Okay, I promise I’ll get the straw out of my hair, but I’m not wearing black. I just can’t understand why all black is so chic when it’s the “color” that oppressed women are forced to wear all over the world. I’m wearing orange, and NYC will just have to deal with it. The banquet is Sunday night, Saturday we’re going to see the play Memphis on Broadway. All very fun and exciting… but when do I get to work Willie on sheep again?
And apologies for no new photo today: I’ve spent all my time on the first blog (next week!) and the article about friendship and now have to pack, clean the house for the sitter, write out my lengthy set of instructions, etc etc. Just too much to do today! I’ll make up for it next week!