Summary: A dog’s behavioral functions are strong predictors of how its owners treat them.
Source: Max Planck Institute
Research into the unique cognitive abilities of dogs often leads to surprises, including dogs’ ability to form mental representations of things they smell, or that they know when their owners do something by accident.
However, dog cognition research suffers from the same biases as general psychology: in both fields, studies are usually done in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies.
Although nearly everything we know about dog-human bonds, dog behavior, and dog cognition comes from WEIRD societies, the majority of dogs in the world live outside of these conditions.
To address this bias and form a better understanding of dog-human relationships in societies around the world, a team of researchers from the MPI of Geoanthropology and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology assessed data on the functions and treatment of dogs in 124 globally distributed societies.
The researchers found that, across all societies, dogs’ functions are a good predictor of how they are treated by their owners. Analysis showed that the more functions dogs have in a society, such as guarding, herding, or hunting, the closer the dog-human relationship is likely to be.
To conduct the study, the researchers investigated ethnographic data from the eHRAF cross-cultural database and identified societies in which dogs serve any of five main functions: hunting, defense, guarding herds, herding, and carrying or transporting supplies.
They then collected data on how dogs are treated in those societies and coded it into three dimensions: positive care (e.g. dogs are allowed indoors, dogs receive healthcare, puppies are raised), negative treatment (e.g. dogs are not fed, dogs are physically abused, dogs are regularly culled), and personhood (e.g. dogs are named, dogs are buried and/or mourned, dogs are perceived as family members).
By analyzing the relationship between dog functions and treatment, the researchers showed that the number of functions is positively associated with positive care and personhood and negatively associated with negative treatment. However, they also found that not all of a dog’s jobs influence treatment equally.
For example, herding is particularly likely to increase positive care, whereas hunting has no impact on positive care or negative treatment, but does increase the odds of personhood. Thus, in societies where dogs are kept for hunting, humans are more likely to name their dogs and perceive them as family members.
Additionally, the study showed that negative treatment and positive care are not mutually exclusive. In fact, of the 77 societies with data for all three dimensions of dog treatment, 32 showed the presence of both positive care and negative treatment.
This suggests that the dog-human relationship is not as simple or straightforward as “man’s best friend,” but involves a complex balance between offering care and minimizing costs.
“Our study adds a systematic test for explaining the cultural drivers that shape the variety of dog-human bonds around the world,” says Juliane Bräuer of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology.
“This represents a first step into understanding whether the cognitive and social skills associated with dogs are universal or are influenced by the cultural environment the dogs live in.”
The researchers hope that future studies will bring greater understanding of the history of dog-human cooperation. For instance, while roughly half of the world’s societies keep dogs for only one purpose, the other half make use of them in multiple ways.
Why did some societies start employing dogs for multiple purposes? Did such use bring sizeable benefits? And if so, what were they? Answering these questions will reveal in new detail how dogs and humans have affected each other throughout our shared history.
Function predicts how people treat their dogs in a global sample
Dogs have an extraordinary relationship with humans. We understand, communicate, and cooperate remarkably with our dogs. But almost all we know about dog-human bonds, dog behaviour, and dog cognition is limited to Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) societies.
WEIRD dogs are kept for a variety of functions, and these can influence their relationship with their owner, as well as their behaviour and performance in problem-solving tasks. But are such associations representative worldwide?
Here we address this by collecting data on the function and perception of dogs in 124 globally distributed societies using the eHRAF cross-cultural database.
We hypothesize that keeping dogs for multiple purposes and/or employing dogs for highly cooperative or high investment functions (e.g., herding, guarding of herds, hunting) will lead to closer dog-human bonds: increased primary caregiving (or positive care), decreased negative treatment, and attributing personhood to dogs.
Our results show that indeed, the number of functions associates positively with close dog-human interactions.
Further, we find increased odds of positive care in societies that use herding dogs (an effect not replicated for hunting), and increased odds of dog personhood in cultures that keep dogs for hunting. Unexpectedly, we see a substantial decrease of dog negative treatment in societies that use watchdogs. Overall, our study shows the mechanistic link between function and the characteristics of dog-human bonds in a global sample.
These results are a first step towards challenging the notion that all dogs are the same, and open questions about how function and associated cultural correlates could fuel departures from the ‘typical’ behaviour and social-cognitive skills we commonly associate with our canine friends.