Do Dogs View Humans As Dogs? ( Sounds Weird )
Humans interact with animals in numerous ways and on numerous levels. We are indeed living in an “animal”s world,’ in the sense that our lives are very much intertwined with the lives of animals. This also means that animals, like those dogs we commonly refer to as our pets, are living in a “human’s world” in the sense that it is us, not them, who, to a large degree, define and manage the interactions we have with them. In this sense, the human-animal relationship is nothing we should romanticize: it comes with clear power relations and thus with a set of responsibilities on the side of those who exercise this power. This holds, despite the fact that we like to think about our dogs as human’s best friend. Dogs have been part of human societies for longer than any other domestic species. Like no other species they exemplify the role of companion animals. Relationships with pet dogs are both very widespread and very intense, often leading to strong attachments between owners or caregivers and animals and to a treatment of these dogs as family members or even children. But how does this relationship look from the dogs’ perspective? How do they perceive the humans they engage with? What responsibilities and duties arise from the kind of mutual understanding, attachment, and the supposedly “special” bonds we form with them? Are there ethical implications, maybe even ethical implications beyond animal welfare? The past decades have seen an upsurge of research from comparative cognition on pet dogs’ cognitive and social skills, especially in comparison with and reference to humans. We will therefore set our discussion about the nature and ethical dimensions of the human–dog relationship against the background of the current empirical knowledge on dog (social) cognition. This allows us to analyze the human–dog relationship by applying an interdisciplinary approach that starts from the perspective of the dog to ultimately inform the perspective of humans. It is our aim to thereby identify ethical dimensions of the human–dog relationship that have been overlooked so far.
The question of how dogs perceive us humans is important for several reasons, both from the perspective of biologists as well as animal ethicists. First, an enduring topic of animal behavior and animal cognition research is how animals adapt to their social environment, how they cope with the challenges of dynamic relationships among group members, and especially how they achieve a balance between competition and cooperation. Complex social life has been proposed as one of the main driving forces in the evolution of higher cognitive abilities in humans and non-human animals (Humphrey, 1976; Dunbar, 1998).
Secondly, while evolution has equipped species with the appropriate cognitive tools to engage in sophisticated social interactions during foraging and conflict management, including the formation of valuable relationships (social bonds), it is less clear how species became able to deal with heterospecifics with whom they live in close interaction, i.e., not simply as prey or predator. This is the case in at least two domains, in urban species and in domesticated species. In the latter domain, dogs have been considered as the species that formed the closest bonds with humans. So how was it possible for these animals to engage in such close interactions with humans, who are members of a different species, with a different anatomy, physiology, including different sensory modalities, behavior, and cognition?
While the first two reasons might inspire cognitive biologists who address topics in animal behavior and evolution to investigate dogs’ perspective on the human–dog-relationship, animal ethicists might find additional reasons why the question of how dogs perceive humans is important. This is because the relationship between humans and dogs is characterized by a clear dominance hierarchy, not only during the process of domestication, but also during the individual life of the dog. This only gives us an ethical reason why to consider the human–dog-relationship but also a reason why to consider it differently than relationships that are not characterized in such a way. Humans have domesticated dogs, not vice versa, mainly to exploit them for their own benefit, as assistants during hunting, as guardians of their homes, or as companions. More recently, we have added other tasks and purposes that cover a very wide range of different contexts. We use dogs as testing devices in labs, as search (and rescue) animals (when looking for missing persons as much as when looking for rare truffles), as therapists in animal-assisted therapies, dance partners in dog dancing, hair models in dog grooming, or influencers in social media, just to name a few. The multitude of interactions and contexts in which we use them, of course, has produced a number of welfare issues and, as we are going to argue, ethical issues beyond welfare. While ethical debates have convincingly pointed to human responsibilities for example in the case of farm animals and lab animals, companion animals are often not so clearly seen as animals which we “use,” objectify, or instrumentalize, maybe because the term “companion” indicates to some degree a mutual relationship rather than an exploitative one. But how, in fact, do dogs experience this relationship? How do they perceive the humans they engage with? Have they indeed specifically adapted to interact and form “special” bonds with humans as the Domestication Hypothesis (see our section on Effects of Domestication) suggests? We assume that part of the answer to these questions can be found in the growing evidence for dogs’ special skills to perceive and understand us.
The structure of this paper is as follows. In a first step, we will discuss insights from the dog’s domestication history and from empirical studies on their (social) cognition to illustrate how dogs perceive us, and consequently sketch the nature of our relationship with them. In a second step, we will assess what ethical responsibilities arise from the characteristics of the human–dog relationship. Should we profoundly reevaluate some ways we use dogs, and enrich the narrative of dogs as “companions” and “man’s best friend” with some ethical considerations that are indeed more demanding? Our methodology thus utilizes the results from current debates in dog social cognition to evaluate the human–dog relationship from a critical, ethical perspective. Our aim is to show by means of such an interdisciplinary investigation in what ways our current knowledge about dog domestication and dog social cognition can and should inform our treatment of these animals. For our discussion of the empirical evidence, we have picked three areas of dog social cognition where we find a substantial amount of studies. Our selection thus mirrors the general interest of the research community. However, the community might be neglecting other possible abilities in dogs due to a lack of interest in them, a publication bias towards positive results, flawed study designs or other reasons. We will come back to this in our ethical discussion, since what we do not know about dogs might be relevant to the treatment that we owe them. While in this paper we will restrict our discussion of ethical implications to the kinds of studies available, other, more profound ethical implications might lie ahead, once cognition research broadens its focus.