Who Are We to Dogs?

This is an authentic question: ie, I don’t have the answer. But it’s a great question, posed by a seminar attendee, and also by someone who reads the blog. Do dogs think we are mutant dogs? Pathetic replicates who never grow out of our flat, puppy faces (we never grow muzzles) and can’t use our mouths but make up for it endearingly with our cute, floppy paws? And surely they believe we can’t smell–at all. My guy Jim speculated that just as people often assume that animals can’t [fill-in-the-blanks: think in abstractions or strategize or be conscious) because they can’t do it with the depth of skill that we do, perhaps dogs assume we can’t smell anything at all, because we are so horrifically bad at it.

On the one hand, you could argue that dogs behave toward us as they do other dogs: they signal us in ways that are exactly the same as they signal other dogs (not that many dogs don’t behave differently around people as they do around dogs, but that the signals they use are the same signals they use to their own species.) They lick our muzzles, they stare cold and hard into our eyes, they growl and posture using all the same movements and expressions that they use around other dogs. One could argue that this suggests they categorize us as some kind of dog-like creature.

On the other hand, we tend to use the same social signals with dogs as we do people (which gets us in no end of trouble, see The Other End of the Leash!), and we know that dogs are a different species. In addition, dogs have no trouble differentiating different types of dogs (I’m always amused when people ask if dogs can tell a Black Lab from a German Shepherd. Wouldn’t it seem that if we can, they can? They are, after all, dogs, and surely they can tell one another apart more easily than we can! They may not use the same categories as we do.. I highly doubt they separate one another into “Herding” and “Sporting!”, but surely it is obvious to them how profoundly different we are from dogs.) Wouldn’t it be obvious to dogs that we’re NOT dogs? Just our smell alone would make it profoundly obvious.

But, if we’re not disabled dogs, who are we to our dogs? How are we thought of? Ahh… and here’s the real question… Do dogs think of such things at all? Perhaps this is a question a dog has never asked? Perhaps we are just who we are, and dogs have no need to put us into some taxonomic category that makes our brains happy but might be irrelevant to theirs…. but, then, surely they must have some way to identifying living creatures in the world around them. Friend? Foe? Prey? Weird, monster like thing that can not be explained?

This could get circular, but I am very interested in your thoughts on this….

Meanwhile, back at the farm: The birds are emptying the feeders at a heck of rate, I can barely keep them full. Now that it’s gotten colder and many of the insects are gone, the suet and black oil sunflower seed are especially attractive. We have many species coming daily now, the usual Southern Wisconsin mixed species flocks of Black capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice (don’t look at me, I didn’t give them a common species name), White Breasted Nuthatches, Downy, Hairy & Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Goldfinch, Purple or House Finch (have to check, we have had both, haven’t paid enough attention last few days), Blue Jays, Cardinals and Doves. More will come as it gets colder, including the Red Breasted Nuthatch (oh so cute).

Here’s a Chickadee… I thought this photo looked like a painting as much as a photograph:

Here’s the Tufted Titmouse, perched and then with a sunflower seed. Notice how s/he holds the seed on the branch with the feet, and then pecks through the shell and extracts the seed.


  1. Dana says

    If all is right in our dogs’ world, I think they see us as their protectors. They look to us for reassurance, security, their needs and love. If my dogs are startled or unsure of a situation, they look at me. If they want something, or they want affection, they come to me. We protect them and sometimes they protect us.

  2. Shannah says

    I also wonder about these kinds of questions, because they do seem anthropomorphic, but at the same time… I think of my dog Roxie, a red doberman, who is in love with squirrels. She knows the word “squirrel” and if you ask her, she will go look for them and chase them. She definitely alerts on squirrels and not rabbits or rats or other small furry things–they are a distinct category. In fact, I had a pet rat for a while, and she knew the rat’s name and would find the rat and cuddle with it if asked (when the rat was out of her cage). If Roxie can differentiate between “squirrel” and “rat” and see them as separate categories, certainly she can tell the difference between “dog” and “human.” I think, perhaps, that dogs do recognize categories of beings, but are not interested in relationships between those categories. Yes, they think, I live with this “dog.” Yes, I live with this “human.” Yes, I live with this “rat” and chase this “squirrel.” But I’m not sure that the dog would ask “Why is ‘dog’ different from ‘human’? What role does the ‘human’ serve in my life?” My experience with dogs leads me to believe that they are more in the present tense than that. Who are we to dogs? An answer that makes sense to me is that we are humans, in our own category, with a distinct role that we live out. We feed, take out for walks, play. Even without the danger of anthropomorphism in assigning a title like “caregiver,” I think that we can see that dogs are in relationship with us as creatures who inhabit their world, and that each of us has a part in the social life of a “pack” or “family” (interesting that we have similar constructs in our relations) that we are expected to fulfill because of patterns of behavior.

  3. says

    I agree with Dana — my dogs seem to all recognize my responsibility and my willingness to protect them. The dogs I partner (therapy and search-and-rescue) also seem to look upon me as a collaborator, taking power and giving up power as needed so that they can do their jobs properly. They also seem to see me as a playmate, the source of potential fun — in games pitched by them and as initiator of play.

    Protector, collaborator, playmate, and … companion. The dogs of my house seem to recognize an easy cameraderie between us, a mutual pleasure just in being together, whether task or nap at hand.

    And as far as smell goes, I think dogs have to learn we can’t smell what they do. It’s a recognizeable stage in a SAR dog, when they enter a space where scent is STRONG, and they stop showing us because man, to them, it is so OBVIOUS. When we have to ask them to get more specific, every once in awhile we’ll see a young dog pause and blink and there is this moment of …incredulity is the only word … that they should have to get more specific. After that point, many dogs will give up being general and will cheerfully point out the hottest spot of scent quite directly, stick there until we get the point, as though they’re now aware of our lack of nose.

    As for the dogs who have reason to be afraid of humankind, I don’t even want to think of the monster shapes they might use to define us.

  4. says

    This is just to add to the mix as I don’t have an answer to the question. I have a rescued dove who used to live free in my spare bedroom but while I was having work done on the house I had to cage her and keep her in the living room. Judging by coos, she was apparently much happier having to be caged for most the day but being much more in the center of things insead of free to fly around her own room but being almost entirely solitary. One day early into Cracker’s (because she is dumb, white and southern 😉 move to the living room I had given her grain earlier in the day but she appeared very upset when I went to feed the dogs that evening and did not settle until I gave her more grain. The next day she waited and didn’t eat her grain until the dogs’ dinner time. My jrt would eat Cracker if given half a chance so it isn’t that Cracker interacts with the dogs but I think in the absence of a flock she must have some idea that they are closer to her level in the family maybe and so wants to eat when they eat just for some social interaction? I don’t know. I often let Cracker have free time in the living room with a gate between the kitchen and living room and she regularly perches on the gate with the dogs lying on the kitchen floor and me typing at the kitchen table. At the first indication that any of the dogs is aware of her she immediately flies to a higher location in the living room.

  5. Anna says

    My PWCs react much differently towards dogs they know and have played with before than they do to yet unmet dogs but they are very happy to meet them. My guys also recognize another corgi instantly and get very excited despite having never met them before so yes I think they do see differences in dogs. I guess if we follow your guidance correctly our dogs see us as their leader be us dog or not and that is the greatest compliment they can pay us… Trust.

  6. says

    I have no doubt that dogs know that we are not dogs. However, just as we have trouble not using our human social signals with dogs, they have trouble remembering not to use their canine communication methods with us.

    Just as with peoples’ views of dogs, I think that different dogs with various life experiences view humans in vastly disparate ways. My dog sees almost every human, except the rare 1% who make her leery for unknown reasons, as a source of fun and treats. She behaves differently with friendly humans than with friendly dogs, making soft eye contact and snuggling cheek-to-cheek in ways that she’d never do with a dog.

    Dogs undoubtedly also make distinctions among people. Many dogs can spot a dog-lover (e.g., me) a mile away and pull their human to me. But, they ignore other people who aren’t dog lovers.

    I believe that, at some level, dogs do think about what we are and how to figure out whether an individual is benign, nice, or mean. In my opinion, making such a subtle distinction requires thinking.

  7. Christine says

    I see it the same way Dana does. When our Tabasgo wants to show me something what is going on in the garden, he always looks back at me to make sure that I follow him. And I remember our old Lucky, when he sometimes stood just in front of me on our walks so that I could shortly massage his back which relaxed his spine. Or our good Sandy who ran back to my old mother, who fell down in the woods, and stood still like a trestle so that she could get a hold and come up to her feet; and Donar who was comforting our grandchildren during a thunderstorm. I think they see in us a strong and a weak something alike.

  8. says

    I don’t know how my dogs see me, but I know they don’t see me as the same as other dogs. Their body language with me vice other dogs is different, they almost use the “dumbed down” pretty obvious body language that you see dogs use with puppies sometimes. I like to think they give me credit for trying but realize that I am not a native speaker of their language and are speaking slowly and enunciating extra-clearly for me.

    Then again, when I followed your suggestion (I think in _For Love of a Dog_ to wiggle my butt and grin at them like a happy dog) first I swear to god they laughed at me, then they got happy wigglebutts with me. If I do it to strange dogs, they usually eyeball me a bit first and then either decide I’m nuts or join in with a happy wigglebutt of their own.

  9. Anne says

    I think they see us as individuals. One thing I can’t figure out, is why some dogs seem to know a familiar person no matter what, from a long way away, and other dogs make mistakes and bark at people they know until they realize somewhat later, oh yeah, he lives here.
    My dog Cinder will lay staring at the door minutes before my husband even comes down the driveway. I was going to time her tonight to see when she starts this behavior and then see how far away he was when she realized he was coming. Another dog, Ben, is perpetually surprised, and will run barking when he hears the door open, but then realize, oh yeah, I know that guy when he gets to my husband. Maybe Cinder is a lot smarter, or just older and wiser. She is 9 and Ben is 3.

  10. Liz F. says

    Anecdotally, I think humans can be many things to dogs. On one extreme, we are certainly not the friendliest species. We are, in fact, among the world

  11. says

    Like Dana, I think that they must see us as protectors and nurturers, and kin of some sort. I’ve also wondered whether they are amazed at how we can do all the things that they can’t do, like open doors and drawers (well, sometimes they do that), drive, ride bicycles, climb ladders, turn on fawcets, make the tube in the living room light up and emit noise, etc. We must seem like guardian-aliens to them.

  12. Scott says

    If dogs do view us as dogs, I think it is definitely as some “other” kind of dog. This becomes especially obvious when you live with more than one dog in the house.

    I fancy myself pretty good at reading dog body language, but there is still a huge amount of information that I “ignore.” So in their minds, it would make sense that their kennel-mates are other dogs very like them, but I am the foreign dog who tries to communicate vocally far too often, doesn’t understand or ignores half of the communications they send to him, and doesn’t realize half of the communications his body is relaying to them; he speaks dog with a STRONG accent.

  13. Lacey H says

    From my experience with rescue dogs – they may see people as friends, and sometimes friends they want to “own” and not share; they may see them as dangerous enemies; they may see them as miraculous saviors (from the hell of shelter experience; they may see them as playmates, to be pushed around if possible. It all depends on their experiences, as does the way we see them.

  14. Debra says

    I’m pretty sure my two aussies know I’m not a dog – as others have said they almost seem like they’re trying to communicate slowly so I can “catch on”. I think I frustrate them often with how slow I am to read them correctly.
    I know they recognize breed differences. For the most part, they’ve never met another aussie, border collie, or sheltie they didn’t think should instantly like them. The body language is so clear it’s almost comical – it’s like long lost relatives they’re greeting. On our daily walks it’s interesting their reactions to the various dogs as we walk by. I can tell if the dog is friendly by watching my dogs reactions – they get wiggley or whine. There are two HUGE boxers that walk by with their owner and my dogs avert their eyes and are very quiet as they pass by. Although there is the possibility it’s me sending vibes down the leash – I’m a total herding dog person and my comfort level is much higher around them than the larger breeds like bullies or boxers.

  15. Alexandra says

    I see things the way KB does. Particularly the part about communication skills. Humans, with our highly developed language skills and great big brains, have such a hard time “speaking” canine, so we communicate with our dogs so often as if they were primates. I’m sure our dogs experience the same problem and resort to “talking” to us as if we were canines, although I’m sure they are smart enough to realize we are some other kind of animal than a dog. In my own observation and from what I have read, consciousness and thinking is on a scale of sophistication rather than an absolute there/not there.

    As far as my cat is concerned, I’m pretty sure she thinks of my husband and I as “staff.”

  16. Alexandra says

    I forgot to add, those are lovely pictures, Trisha!

    And as always, apologies for the typos. I need to be more careful!

  17. ABandMM says

    Interesting question. There are many times when I wish I knew what my dog was thinking. I find my dog’s body language and facial expressions hard to read, she is not very expressive in ways that are obvious to me in that moment.

    I hope that my dog sees me as her guardian and friend. Okay, so I won’t let her chase the bunnies, turtles and squirrels, however, I make sure she has food in her belly, vet care, and a warm, safe place to sleep. I also take her on walks and do things with her (like Rally O) that I hope she finds fun and challenging. And based on some video a friend took, she does seem to be enjoying Rally (or at least doing sits/downs etc. to get salmon treats!!)

    I strongly suspect that my dog sees me as “something else” and that “sorting” system begins with her nose. I have noticed that since I have been volunteering at a local animal shelter, she seems to have taken more “interest” in me. She now sleeps on my bed rather than on the couch out in the living room. Do I now “smell better”, more “doggish”? Is this her way of reminding me that “hey, look it lady, you already got a dog”? Or something else that reflects the state of our bond after almost 3 years together?

    I do agree with those above that a dog’s life experiences probably do have a large role in how they see us. My dog was adopted at 1.5 yrs old from a shelter, so I know I am missing ~ 18 months worth of information about her. As the neuroscience field continues to unravel the mysteries of the brain, maybe some of what is learned about how humans process information about their environment (physical, chemical and other sensory inputs) can be applied to dogs (and other animals).

    In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my dog for her funny antics, her moments of “obedience”, the minor lapses due to being a “hound dog”, and the “looks” that I get (probably more often than I realize) that suggest that she just might “love” me :).

  18. Anna says

    My dogs come in contact with many different varieties of animals such as deer, turkey, chipmunk, rabbit, shunk, many birds etc and they live with cats. They appear know each has its own “skills” and way of doing things and approach each differently although with one thing in mind “get out of MY yard” (except for the cats in the house). Humans also get treated differently, never chased unless it is in play and rarely any intent to get them to leave. They are smarter than often given credit for… they know the differences they just don’t worry about it.

  19. Mary Beth says

    I think dogs DO categorize. When I have play groups in my 3 acre fenced yard, its seems like the dogs segregate into groups. One way they split up is color…in particular there will be a “black dog” group. And another way is breed type, i.e. herding type versus sporting type versus terrier type. I don’t think its breed recognition as much as it is play styles. Sporting dogs tend to have different play behaviors than herding dogs or hound dogs and so on.
    As for human versus dog, I think its fascinating how my dog will forgive me personally for faux pas, i.e. I can hug him and kiss him on the nose. I don’t think he likes it much better with me kissing him than any other person, but I have a special “hall pass” to commit social acts than other people do. I knew my boyfriend was a full fledged member of the family when he could pester my dog when he was tucked into his corner in his little ball sleeping and he wouldn’t react…not that he’s nasty, but he would be more likely to get up and leave or mumble under his breath if it wasn’t a family member touching him.

  20. Mary Beth says

    And I have to add this one in too. My house cat has license to do anything she wants around the dogs. But oh boy, bring a strange cat into the yard and its game over for that cat! Obviously they recognize their cat over a strange cat.

    Even more intriguing was when my Weimaraner spent several months away from home. When I took my Arabian horse to field trials, he would whinny and trot over to other Weims, then act dejected when he realized it wasn’t his gray dog. When my Weim came home, my Arab screamed and climbed up on the fence, reaching his neck way over to touch noses with my dog. I was shocked. I never realized that my horse would miss my dog!

  21. Alessandro Rosa says

    My thoughts will bring me back to, It depends. I think that it depends on our relationship to the dog, and I say the here because many of the response have focused on your personal dog and not the species dog.

    Species Dog is wary yet curious of Species Human. Most I don’t think view humans as prey, although some individuals might, especially in the right circumstances. Maybe they are responding to Species Human’s wary curiosity of them.

    When the Individual Dog is nurtured by its environment, it makes distinctions, from what I have seen. There is a dog at the park that I go to that I gave treats the first few times I took Darwin. Then he went on a diet and his owners asked that he not get treats. I can still call him, he will see me and happily bound over, even though the only reward is a scratch behind the ears, and then he happily lopes back to his owners when I say “Go to Mommy / Daddy”

    When it comes to Darwin, our relationship is very different as he is my dog. Being a beagle he is fairly independent, but he will “check in” with me when he is unsure or scared or wants to make sure that I am around. He gets disappointed and maybe even a little panicked when I leave him, even if it is in another room where he can’t get to me. He likes cuddling, so he will curl up with me at night and squeeze himself as close as possible to me. Is this love? Is it security? Is it a regression back to the puppy pile? I’d like to think it is a little bit of all of that.

    And with all of this familiarity with Individual Human, it doesn’t always translate over to Species Human for Darwin. When he is out, on a walk, he can be wary or down right scared of another person, even if the person is relatively benign. Then there are people he will warm right up to. To our knowledge, he hasn’t had any negative experiences with humans, so it is hard to say why this happens, but I think that it shows that dogs see us as individuals when the know us and as Species Human when they don’t and I think it is the same for us. There are dogs that I know that I wouldn’t think twice about putting my hand in their mouths when playing tug or fetch, as I am familiar with them and trust their bite inhibition and there are some that I know that I can’t do this with.

    But with Species Dog, I think Species Human sees it very different if the big, goofy Golden puppy comes bounding towards them or a 100Lb Doberman Bark Charges them. I think one will probably release endorphins while the other will release adreneline and a fight or flight response. It is probably even a different response if the Bark Charge comes from a Yorkie and not a Doberman. Size matters which is why I think I go back to what I initially said with it depends.

  22. JJ says

    I’m with the camp that thinks that asking “What do dogs think about humans?” is akin to asking “What do humans think about dogs?” Which humans? Which dogs? It depends on the dogs and humans.

    I’m not saying that dogs “think” about humans in the same way that humans think about dogs. I’m pretty sure there isn’t even one dog, let alone 300 who would give up an entire Saturday to hear another dog give a lecture on human behavior and emotions.

    Still, humans have lots of surface opinions about dogs. Such as: “Dogs are smelly and needy and not as good as cats.” or “Dogs are pure love” or “Dogs are fun and great friends and a lot of work”. In the same way, individual dogs who interact with humans must have opinions about the creatures–based on experiences and pre-disposition to said creatures. By opinions, I mean things like “Most humans are friendly and will give me massages and food. I want to be near those tall beings.” or “Humans cause pain and bring loud noises. I must do all I can to keep humans away from me.” These thoughts affect behavior which is something we all care about. So, I think it is good to think about doggie thoughts. (Lots of thinking in that last sentence.)

  23. Lynn says

    I imagine that my dogs think of me much as I think of them — as a strongly bonded companion of another species. We each communicate primarily in our own language, and we all do our best to understand the foreign language spoken by the other. I’ve learned to understand some basic dog vocabulary and they’ve learned some basic English/human body language. We all miss many, if not most, of the details, but also manage to do pretty well on the general concepts, in much the same way that two people who speak different languages can communicate in a crude but effective way through gesture and good will. We have different sets of skills (my sense of smell is pathetic, but hands are excellent for scratching and opening the refrigerator) which we appreciate in one another. And, most importantly, we share a conviction that it is possible to tell each other whatever we really need to say, and that the process of figuring each other out is mutually satisfying. (Although frankly, I could do with hearing a lot less of what my Terv thinks of the dog next door.) I am willing to go along with their games (“Throw this little redwood cone, and I will go get it!”) and they are willing to go along with mine (obedience, agility, musical freestyle). I have to say, however, it’s very gratifying to have a dog initiate one of “my” games. Yesterday Taz the Terv found and dragged over the mat that we’ve been using for training go-outs. Apparently he was ready to train!

  24. Carolyn says

    I’m really enjoying this conversation. To add to what has been said, I think my dog appreciates the unique capability I have as the species with “hands.” She clearly understands what they can do for her … prepare her food, open doors, and scratch in all the right places. She was adopted missing quite a few teeth so she’s learned to “show” me, by positioning herself just so and throwing significant glances at me, that I need to check for ticks, fleas or burrs that she can’t remove herself.

    If she’s walked through biting ants, she shows me which foot they are on by lifting it and waving it with a pathetic expression in her eyes. She patiently waits for me to pick them out even when they are biting.

    A favorite anecdote. She’s only 11 lbs. and I’d tied a (herbally scented supposedly flea/tick-repelling) bandanna around her neck for our walk. The grass was longish and dewy and soon the bandanna was wet and coming untied to the point she was beginning to trip over it. I retied it a couple times and then gave up. We were almost to our driveway.

    Maggie darted in front me and blocked me. She very deliberately picked up the loose bandanna tie in her mouth and stared meaningfully at me: “Please deal with this!”

    Needless to say, I jumped to!

  25. Laura says

    I don’t think dogs think we are dogs. I agree with what everyone has said above about it depending on the experience of the dogs as to what they think of humans in general.

    My dogs live with four cats who go outside. If they see one of them in the driveway, street or yard they don’t react at all. If they see a strange cat they go ballistic. This recognition is based on vision only.

    I agree with Lynn and I think dogs think we are awesome because of the things we can do for them like provide the awesome food, open doors, and drive. I also think they think we are silly because we can’t smell, insist on cleaning ourselves too much and cleaning them too much, and we have to wear clothes. We look like Chinese Crested dogs.

  26. Pike says

    Thank you for another intriguing discussion and beautiful pictures! My immediate thought was, that my dogs perceive me (and all inhabitants of the house) foremost as pack members of some kind.

    In order to successfully breed they must be able to recognize their own species

  27. says

    Either in Adam Miklosi’s Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition or a paper he co-authored, there were studies that showed that dogs do regard us as something fundamentally different than other dogs. In one, dogs were more willing to follow a human around a detour than to follow another dog, even if the other dog was a more confident/higher status dog.

    My niece and I set up an experiment for her experimental psych class based on Miklosi’s experiment where a piece of unobtainable meat is placed in a crate. The dog, who was previously able to get the meat, is now unable to get the meat. The dogs eventually will look toward the human “for help.” Wolfs, and most other animals will not look toward the human. In the first phase of our experiment we put the dog’s owner and a stranger on opposite sides of the crate and recorded who the dog looked at for help. Then we put the dog’s owner and another dog on either side of the crate to see if the testee dog would look at the human or the dog. We also tested the stranger vs. another dog.

    While lacking a great deal of rigor, we did discover that the dogs always looked at the human and not at the other dog for help, even if the two dogs knew each other well. However, the testee dogs looked at both the owner and the stranger.

    I like the idea of dogs seeing us as service animals. Or as my pups think, we are their chauffeurs and treat caddies.

  28. Amy says

    Nice bird pictures! I miss Black-capped Chickadees; they have such a sweet little song. I’ve heard that Red-breasted Nuthatches love peanuts. They even make peanut-dispensing feeders for them.

  29. Ellen Pepin says

    I think that dogs are able to differentiate between the breeds that they meet. My late dog, Nikki, was very tense around most new dogs. She was always ready to go on offense and to try and dominate others. One of the few breeds she didn’t do this was around German Shepherds; she was a shepherd/terrier mix. Our present dogs, a Shepherd/Rottweiler mix, and a Collie, seem to divide other dogs into two categories: friendly and not friendly. Tess, the collie, seems to have these same reactions even when she is wearing a calming cap, a sort of light filtering blindfold. This prevents her from seeing much more that light and shadows. She wears this cap to dampen her lunging and barking at cars going by. There must be some other signal that lets her know the difference, even from across the street. We are also using the “watch” command and lots of treats when she lets a vehicle go by.

    With strange people, they react differently. Dakota, the Shepherd mix, is quite friendly, but cautious. Once he decides that the person is dog friendly, then he becomes licker and tail wagger. Tess is always cautious around new people. If the person is dog friendly, she relaxes and will permit her back to be stroked (no head pats). In general, I thinks dogs are very perceptive other dogs and their intentions.

  30. Shalea Rhodes says

    Very interesting question!

    From my experiences with ex-track greyhounds, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that dogs do categorize other dogs — many retirees react very differently to greyhounds versus other breeds. And certain high prey drive greyhounds seem to view small dogs as just another kind of prey animals and not dogs at all.

    My guess, then, would be that dogs view the world in shades of “otherness” – degree of removal from pack/family. Dogs view their own particular people as family. Certain dogs I have known seem to view the relatives of their human “pack” as extended members of their pack even if they don’t live in the house with them – my sister’s dog listens reliably to her, her husband, and me (truth be told, me more than the husband).

    I suspect it gets down to a dog’s individual experiences and who they are socialized to. Dogs who haven’t had the opportunity to interact with other dogs since they were a pup may be able to communicate with people better than other dogs. Dogs who haven’t been socialized to dogs of other than their own breed may view other breeds as something “other”.

    So how do our personal dogs view us? As pack members and family. Sometimes they have to struggle a bit to get us to understand them (and vice versa), and the dynamics of the relationship may change depending on circumstances (we humans may be the best hunters and always be able to provide the chow, but we’re obviously not aware of how much of a threat to the family that suspicious car/dog/squirrel/jogger really is).

  31. Ignacio says

    I can notice some very subtle differences between the way our dog interacts with us or other people, and the way he interacts with other dogs. It’s like some of these signals are a bit more exaggerated when trying to communicate with a human. I don’t think there’s any doubt about them seeing us as comrades, partners.

    You know, deep inside, I sometimes wonder if they see us for what we really are: the most dangerous species on the planet. Like Mark Twain once wrote:

    “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the lower animals (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man.

  32. Melissa in El Cajon, Ca says

    I like to believe in an afterlife because it is there, I believe, that we will know all sorts of things and one of the best will be “what dogs think.”

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog (and your books) and look forward everyday to a new post.

  33. Lisa G says

    Dogs can tell the difference among other animals. I think they know that there is a difference between a fish and a horse so it goes to reason that we are another animal species in their lives. Humans try their hardest to interact with dogs and dogs very much have a “what’s in it for me” attitude so I’m sure that they hang around us because they know it benefits them. Hanging around a fish isn’t going to get them food, the fish isn’t going to play with them, and the fish doesn’t make them comfortable or buy them beds or scratch their bellies. Dogs benefit from humans and humans benefit from dogs and I think that is all dogs need to know. It is most beneficial to hang around another animal that feeds them, touches them, and protects them and all they have to do is tolerate some of our bad habits. The relationship is sybiotic.
    When watching a group of dogs interact, I have found that they even seek out others of their own breed. Obviously the relationship between dogs and other dogs as well as dogs and other animals goes far beyond a simple sense of self and non-self. If it were as simple as self and non-self then dogs could become commrades with a fish as easy as another dog both other animals being a non-self. Dogs are very very smart and we have only brushed on the tip of their capabilities. It would be most helpful if they could TALK!! I stare at my dogs and I wish more than anything that they could TELL me what they are thinking. I guess if I read their body language, they kind of already do…

  34. Kelsey says

    My dogs (like many I know) seem to not only recognize differences among both species (humans/dogs/cats/squirrels), but also to recognize differences between individuals (one of my dogs is very specific about both her canine and human companions: she’ll find dogs she doesn’t like, and gives them all kinds of go-away signals unless they happen to do something wonderful, and with certain humans, she will get shy and avoidy.) There’s no real connection between the dogs and humans that make her nervous (they’re not all the same ‘type’)–she just knows who she likes. My other dog has an extremely high prey drive, but his drive seems to focus on two groups: cats and small dogs, both of which he is extremely interested in chasing/attacking (we’re working on it.) However, he ignores squirrels, birds, raccoons, and any number of creatures that drive my other dog bazoo (and my other dog, conversely, is fine with cats and small dogs).

    The interesting thing here is that I think dogs have a good sense of what they can gain from any specific interaction: all of my dogs will pick what dogs they can play chase with, which they can wrestle with, which human to go to when they want treats, which human to go to when they want out, etc. Mine, at least, assume that they can get something they want out of every interaction, human, dog or otherwise, but don’t assume that they’ll get the same thing from everyone.

  35. says

    I don’t think it is simply what dogs are socialized to when they are puppies or that they have a “whats in it for me” attitude. We have selectively bred them to see us as something special. From the research that has been going on, it appears that they are genetically/naturally attracted to humans and willing to see us as protectors/providers/guides.

  36. says

    Some random observations:
    My 6 year old Lab Seeing Eye Dog knows the difference between herself and other species. I have two cats, and though I think she sometimes misreads their signals, they generally get along well.

    My cat played with the closet door last night. My dog knows i don’t like it when he does that. She started wagging her tail, as if to gell me, “Mom, he’s doing it again.” Anthropomorphising? Yes. But she was communicating with me about his behavior. The tail wags started and stopped each time he pushed on the door.

    My cat seems to know the difference between Retrievers and Shepherds. He stays out when Retrievers visit, and hides when Shepherds come in the house.

    I visited the family that raised my last guide dog. They have her, and 3 other dogs they raised. There are three Labs and one Shepherd. The Labs play together and the Shepherd stays to himself, except when my retired Lab plays with him.

    I think they are the brightest dogs in the pack and gravitate toward each other. I also think they are numbers 1 and 2 depending on the moment.

    This family is an extended generational family of puppy raisers and together grandmother and daughter have 8 Seeing Eye Dogs. It’s a wonderful labratory for watching doggy behavior, and watching the evolution of the breeding program.

    These dogs are raised with humans from the time they come out of Mom and are socialised to be loving, trusting pups. Because of the nature of their work, they learn to read humans even better than most dogs.

    My dogs have always had relationships with people other than me. Often with friends of mine, but sometimes independent of me.

  37. Dena Norton says

    My first Springer, Izzee, just loved all Spaniels and Setters that she met. My current pup, Pixie, has had the same reaction, seeming to want to play more with pups who are similar to her.

    I suspect that smell has something to do with it. Even *I* can tell a Spaniel from a Hound by smell.

  38. Kat says

    I know the difference between my children and my dog and cats but they are all part of my family–my web of relationships. I think dogs and cats must see me in the same way; I’m not the same as them but am part of their pack/tribe/colony. I know there are things my dog can do much better than I can–smelling for example and he knows there are things I can do much better than he can so we are partners and together we are more than we are individually.

    I have a shamelessly anthropomorphic story to share. I love to take photographs of things that catch my eye. In the beginning this puzzled Ranger a great deal and when I’d stop walking to photograph something he’d try to figure out what I was doing as it didn’t make any sense which bothered him a lot. Then one day when I was trying to capture a particular light and cloud scape so was shifting around taking pictures from different angles and it was like a light bulb went on for him. He did a brief quartering type sniff looking at me as if saying “I get what you’re doing, you smell with your eyes; cool!” It looked just like the revelations I get when I’m teaching a class about dogs to kids and say that dogs see with their noses. Suddenly a behavior that is foreign to one species makes sense in that species’ context. Kids understand seeing because that is our primary sense and the description dogs see with their noses gives it a context that they can relate to their own method of perceiving the world. I swear that’s what Ranger experienced, that aha moment of realizing that I smell with my eyes. Now when we’re out for a ramble and I stop to take photos he acts the same way I do when he stops to smell something interesting. He can’t see what I’m looking at although if I’m particularly intent on it he might look around just as I might take a few breaths to see if I can smell what it is he stopped to sniff so intently but mostly either one of us stops for the other and waits patiently looking and smelling while the other uses their special sense to explore whatever it is.

  39. Scott says

    I have often wondered if dogs confer with each other about who we are to them? Is there the same stark divide among the dog scientists with those who attribute canine traits to us labeled as being hopelessly cynomorphic?

    I’ve seen the looks my dogs shoot to one another when I do something questionable and I think the answer is absolutely! :0)

  40. Sharon says

    I would agree with the above poster who believes that dogs gravitate to play style versus breed similarity. I don’t think my dogs are self aware – they don’t know that they are Labs – they just behave as many Labs do and are open, gregarious, athletic and happy. In a group situation with other dogs, they gravitate to other dogs who behave similarly.

    My late Dutch Shepherd was very different than the Labs behaviorally. Not easy to get along with, defensive, hyper-vigilant and very reactionary to any dog bigger than her who looked at her sideways. But – in the company of a toy dog – she was SO mushy. Clearly she was nothing like the toy dog – many times their size – but the tinyness inspired playfulness and tolerance she rarely exhibited with other dogs.

    I have no idea what my dogs think of me. I think that the older Lab perceives me differently than the puppy – who seems to see me as a Goddess (about time someone did!!).

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