Do Dogs Have Best Friends?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz March 24, 2021
Friendship is a wonderful thing that makes our lives more enjoyable. Friends are with us through the highs and lows and it would be difficult to imagine a life without them. For those of us with dogs, we probably have wondered if they form similar relationships with other dogs and whether they establish preferences for the companionship of some over others. This article will explore friendship between dogs, between dogs and humans, and even between dogs and other species.
Do Dogs Have Friends?
In scientific reports, there are rarely any mentions of “friendship” between animals, let alone dogs. This does not necessarily mean that dogs don’t have friends though. It turns out that scientists often refer to what we might recognize as friendship as “social bonds” (Brent et al., 2013). Social bonds resembling friendship could be defined as bidirectional affiliative interactions between animals that occur frequently and consistently over time (Massen et al., 2010). These relationships form outside of breeding or parental care obligations. Social bonds in domestic dogs have often been studied and used as a model species to understand the physiological aspects underlying friendship formation, as they have been known to form long-lasting friendships with other dogs (Topál et al., 1998) and also with humans (Prato-Previde et al., 2003). When dogs engage in positive, friendly interactions with one another, their oxytocin levels rise, suggesting this hormone plays a significant role in the formation and maintenance of friendship bonds (Romero et al., 2014).
How To Tell If Your Dog Likes Another Dog?
One of the best indicators that your dog likes another dog is that they will voluntarily spend time with them. Canines that like one another will rest near one another, sometimes in direct physical contact (McCreery, 2000). In addition to resting with one another, dogs that are friends will spend more time engaged in affiliative interactions or play behaviors. The following are examples of behaviors that could indicate that your dog likes another dog (Cavalli et al., 2016; Brent et al., 2013):
- Lying in close proximity with one another
- Relaxed gazing towards the other dog
- Soft body language
- Loose tail wagging
- Bouncy body
- Playful barking
- Making their “happy face” (Soft eyes, relaxed open mouth and relaxed ears)
- Grooming one another
- Sharing food
- Cooperatively foraging
- Cuddling together
Do Dogs Miss Their Friends?
There is evidence to suggest that dogs do miss their friends during periods of separation. In extreme cases, such as when a pair of dogs that have spent their entire lives together are separated, it is common to observe signs of grief. This could include lethargy, refusing to eat, or appearing distraught as they attempt to locate their missing companion. Similar observations have been made during periods of separation from their owner. In one study, dogs spent time searching, scratching and jumping at the door, oriented towards the owner’s empty chair, and vocalized when their owner left the room. The same study also found that dogs greeted their owners more enthusiastically and for longer durations than when they were reunited with a stranger (Prato-Previde et al., 2003) and after being separated for longer durations (Rehn, 2013). If bonded pairs of dogs do need to be separated, it is recommended to do so gradually. If possible, consistent play dates can help a dog cope with not being with their friend.
What Are The Benefits Of Friendships?
It seems that friendship continues to exist in humans and animal populations since it is an evolutionarily advantageous concept. Being social and having friends helps reduce one’s risk of predation and can help increase their ability to find and defend sources of food (Alexander, 1974). Social relationships have some obvious benefits related to reproduction and raising young, but non-sexual and non-kin relationships seem to benefit animals and humans in other ways (Seyfarth and Cheney, 2012). For instance, in humans the quality and quantity of social relationships can directly impact a person’s mental health and can increase the length of their life (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010). Similarly, in animals, those with strong long lasting social bonds lived longer lives and have better offspring survival rates (Silk et al., 2009).
Can Dogs Be Best Friends With Humans?
Yes, there is truth behind the famous expression that dogs are a man’s best friend! Extraordinary social bonds between dogs and humans are widely prevalent, from working dog relationships with their handlers, such as between sled dogs and mushers (Kuhl, 2011), police and police dogs, to everyday pets at home. These relationships are long lasting, often for the entire life of the dog, and positive in nature (e.g., lots of play and affection involved). In multi-dog households, dogs seem just as motivated to play with their dog companions as with their owners (Rooney et al., 2000). When dogs and humans have friendly interactions between their own species, their levels of the hormone oxytocin rise. A study found that when humans play with dogs the same rise in oxytocin is observed (Rehn, 2013), suggesting this interspecies relationship is similar in nature. Overall, it appears that dogs form strong attachment relationships with humans and show preferences for certain humans (e.g., their owners) over others (Kerepesi et al., 2015). It has even been shown that dogs perform jealous behaviors including snapping, getting in between, and trying to push their owner away when their owner showed affectionate behaviors towards another dog (Harris and Poruvost, 2014).
Can Dogs Be Best Friends With Other Animals?
Unfortunately, scientific evidence of dog interspecies friendships is lacking, however there are plenty of documented mixed animal friendships thanks to cell phone cameras and social media (Dagg, 2011).
Many of these recorded interspecies animal bonds occur between predators and their usual prey. This seems unusual but could be explained by certain stressful events that may alter typical animal interactions (Silva, 2017). In some cases, separation of a young animal from their mother or social group could lead them to forming bonds with unlikely animals. Some animals may care for young animals of another species due to having high levels of mothering instincts (RT, 2012). An example of a well-documented relationship between a dog and a dear provides evidence for unlikely friendships facilitated by stressful experiences (BBCHDDocumentary, 2013). Another well documented interspecies dog friendship involves a dog and a cheetah at the San Diego Zoo. In this instance, the Cheetah was orphaned as a young cub and was paired with a puppy for social companionship. In addition to playmates or maternal care, Heymann et al., (2007) proposed some potential benefits to mixed-species groups which included decreased predatory risk, increased foraging efficiency, and increased resource defense ability.
In conclusion, evidence suggests that dogs form social bonds, similar to friendships between humans, with other dogs, people, and sometimes even other species. These social bonds are affiliative, long-lasting, and appears to have both physical and mental health benefits to both parties involved in the relationship. Furthermore, it is likely that dogs will develop preferences for some individuals over others, which could equate to having ‘best friends’. There is also evidence that dogs recognize the absence of their friends and will attempt to reunite themselves. With our pet dogs, it is important to monitor their behaviors around other dogs to ensure they are engaging in positive ways. With close observation, we can likely determine who our dog’s best friends are based on who they prefer to spend the most time with, either while resting, playing, or performing other friendly behaviors with. If we keep this in mind, we can ensure that our dogs have frequent play dates with their preferred partners, leading to a higher quality of life for our companions.
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