The Science Behind Dogs Becoming Man's Best Friend

The Science Behind Dogs Becoming Man's Best Friend

We all know a dog is a man’s best friend. Should we assume the reverse; is humankind also a dog’s best friend as well? 

The California Science Center, located in Los Angeles, has built an entire exhibit dedicated to exploring the centuries-long friendship between humans and dogs. The exhibit is called "Dogs! A Science Tail,” and it includes a demonstration space with service dogs displaying a demo for guests, an archeology exercise in which guests can dig up and examine bones — which are used to explain the evolutionary process of dog domestication as a species — a virtual reality display,  and even an exhibit that simulates certain dog senses in ways that humans can learn and understand their abilities, like a replica fire hydrant that lets visitors smell what a dog smells. It seems like a pretty extensive opportunity to learn a bit about our furry friends. 

“It’s really not about just dogs and science. It’s really about how dogs and humans are both social animals. About how dogs and humans have evolved together over thousands of years. And the fact that because we are both social animals, we’ve learned to work together,” says Jeffrey Rudolph, the center’s president and one of the people who led the project to launch this exhibit. 

There are definitely some fascinating things to learn about dogs, from the sound of it. The fire hydrant display, for example, is used to put into context how dogs process information with their senses differently from humans. Rudolph jokingly points out that when we smell the hydrant, “we just smell pee.” But within that scent, dogs gather a textbook’s-worth of information like how safe the environment is, he says. The hydrant is used to explain that. 

“A dog can tell what dog was there, what time they were there and actually which direction they were going.”

Dogs possess anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000-times as acute a sense of smell as humans. "Let's suppose they're just 10,000 times better," says James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University. "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.”

That’s almost an apples to oranges analogy, though, considering we’re talking about smell and not sight here. Dogs have such a superior sense of smell because they have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in our own noses. That’s as many as 50 million more receptors dedicated just to the ability to take in smell, while the part of their brain that actually processes those smells is actually 40-times larger than our own. What this translates to is a greater capacity for deciphering the most minute details of a given scent. For example, to equate that back to the “3,000 mile” analogy, dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, Alexandra Horowitz,describes this heightened ability with the example of our own ability to smell something like sugar added to our morning cup of coffee. For us, maybe a teaspoon of sugar would create a recognizable smell in that cup of coffee. But to a dog, that same teaspoon of sugar could be detected in one million gallons of water. That’s the equivalent of two olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water. 

 

Using the hydrant exhibit to showcase how dogs’ senses differentiate from our own is how the center contextualizes some of the many ways our species have actually relied on one another through the centuries, capitalizing on the strengths and abilities of their partner species to progress. For example, while our sense of smell (and sound) is well below that of a dog’s, Rudolph points out that our vision and color vision are far better than a canine’s. They make up for this with stronger smell and hearing capabilities and their deficiency in differentiating colors is also accommodated by being more aware of shapes. Together, we became even better hunting partners.

So where or how did this special relationship start? Apparently, scientists are still working hard to fully understand that. We do know that dogs descended from wolves and paired up with humans more than 10,000 years ago, according to archeologist Diane Perlov, the center’s senior vice president for exhibitions. The real question that seems to evade scientists is really who initiated the relationship. Both species would have recognized that the other was good at hunting, Perlov, noted, but whether or not wolves offered their services in exchange for security or humans made a conscious effort to domesticate them for their own benefit is the key to it all. Either way, the bond’s lasted a long time and still going strong. In fact, it’s so strong that there’s even a biological explanation for how humans and dogs connect naturally, now hardwired through evolution. Perlov uses an example of looking a dog straight in the eyes as opposed to a chimp as one way evolution's made certain we would be friends. In the case of human-chimp eye contact, she says that the chimp will just look away. Meanwhile, both humans and dogs create oxytocin when they exchange these looks, a hormone that produces both affection and an overall happy feeling that we seek out more and more. In fact, it’s actually the exact same biological process that happens between a woman and her newborn child to create a maternal bond. In 2015, one study observed how all bonds can be influenced by simply looking at one another in human/dog relationships. The dog and human pairs were observed while interacting during a 30-minute timeframe, and the simple discovery was that dogs who stared at their human owners longer were found to have higher oxytocin levels than dogs whose gaze or attention wasn’t held for very long at all. 

“Dogs make people feel good,’’ says Brian Hare, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, “and their only job is to help people in stressful situations feel better. Many people seem to respond to dogs in a positive way.” 

“When parents look at their baby and their baby stares into their eyes, even though the baby can’t talk, parents get an oxytocin boost just by eye contact,’’ Hare says. “Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or [by] playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up. This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation.’’

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