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Like, What Do Dogs Think Humans Are, Man?

Advice from a neuroscientist who studies the canine brain, an author who writes about how dogs see the world, a world-renowned dog trainer and a dog yoga teacher

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

I frequently find myself, particularly after smoking enough weed to forget my own name, staring my dog in the eyes and wondering, What am I to you, my smol son? Do you see me as your beloved father? A friendly dog who somehow acquired a cozy apartment and an unlimited supply of expensive dog food? Or maybe an omnipotent God? I must know, and I refuse to rest until I do.

Basically: What do dogs think humans are?

The Expert Advice

Victoria Stilwell, dog trainer, star of the international television series It’s Me or the Dog and author of numerous dog-related books, including The Secret Language of Dogs: There are two main schools of thought. The old school thinks that dogs see us as part of their pack — that we have to be pack leaders, and if dogs misbehave, it’s because we’re not being effective pack leaders, and they want us to be so. The other school of thought, which is the one that I espouse, follows more modern behavioral and cognitive science, in that dogs are very smart, and they know that we’re different, because many of the behaviors that they initiate with humans are different than the behaviors that they initiate with other dogs. Many are the same, but many are different.

The whole idea that we’re seen as members of their pack, that they have to be pack leaders or that we have to be their pack leaders, is a real misunderstanding, and one born out of some bad science in the past. But we also like to put human ideas onto dogs. And when we do, we’ve kind of lost their amazing dogdom, like they have to respect us and all of that stuff. It’s a lot of human ideas of social order, or how we respond to other people being put onto dogs.

So I think they see us, and they love us — we know that dogs love, just from their physical expressions, but we also know because of the chemical release of a hormone called oxytocin, which happens when we pet them and when they see us come through the door at the end of the day. But I also think they find us very confusing, because humans are incredibly inconsistent, and that makes it hard to follow the rules of the house. One person says the dog can get up on the sofa, but the other person says the dog can’t get up on the sofa — that’s very confusing. That’s why I don’t think dogs see us as other dogs, because it’s so much harder for them to communicate with us, and so much harder for them to get us to understand them.

But dogs are incredibly adaptable, and that’s what’s made them the most successful domestic species on the planet, because they’ve had that ability to adapt with us confusing humans. It’s been a journey, and they’re still on that journey. But they’ve managed it, and that’s a testament to just how incredible these dogs are.

Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who uses MRI technology to study the canine brain, and author of several books about his findings, including What It’s Like to Be a Dog: It’s absolutely clear that they don’t view us as dogs, and the evidence comes from several lines — including ours. Because in our experiments, we showed pictures to dogs in the scanner, asking first, “Do they have parts of the brain that process faces?” The answer is yes, they do, and it looks like the same regions in humans and other primates. Then other folks have gone on and extended those experiments and suggested that, in fact, these areas in their brain that process faces seem to have slightly different regions, perhaps lying next to each other — one for dog faces and one for human faces. So for a number of reasons, I don’t think anyone actually thinks that dogs see us as other dogs.

Parental figures isn’t a bad guess, and I don’t have any scientific evidence of this, but many behaviors that dogs do when they greet us are similar to behaviors that dogs do with their mother. Like, the licking of your face when you come home, that’s a common greeting that dogs do, certainly with their mother, and that wolves do. Typically, it’s done to elicit the mom to vomit up the food that they’ve caught, so the pups can eat it. So, I think it’s reasonable that we’re a sort of parental figure to them, because after all, we do provide their food for them, and this licking behavior is very common among puppies. That’s probably the best guess, to be honest. 

We humans tend to treat them as surrogate children of sorts, so it’s a reciprocal relationship in that sense. I do think also, though, that dogs are very flexible, and the nature of their relationships is malleable. It can change to be a working relationship, for example, depending on what you do with them. It doesn’t have to be this one-way, parent-to-child situation.

That’s what makes dogs special: Their hypersociality and ability to form bonds with other animals. It’s not just humans; dogs easily form bonds with other animals. There are guardian dogs, which guard livestock. They have these bonds, and that’s what dogs excel at.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization that trains and provides service dogs to children and adults with physical disabilities and special needs, and author of Through a Dog’s Eyes: I believe that dogs do recognize that people aren’t the same as dogs. Nonetheless, they accept us as teammates and family members. I don’t say that dogs form “packs” with people, because we don’t enter canid culture in order to be with dogs — they must enter ours. That’s something we should all remember: We ask dogs to assimilate into our world, a world that’s vastly different from their own. So no matter how our dogs view us, we need to see ourselves as their mentors, parents, advocates, friends and providers. They can’t survive without us, and I don’t think many of us would want to survive without them. In the end, I believe that loved dogs see their people as very nearly everything. It’s a big responsibility, but a far bigger privilege.

Suzi Teitelman, creator and founder of Doga dog yoga: Dogs understand that they’re pure source energy: Pure love, pure positivity, pure peace, pure presence. They’re the essence of what all of us should aim to be. So dogs look at us and they think, Oh, there’s another being who’s a source of energy. They don’t care that we’re in a human body, a dog body or even a cat body. They see another being of pure source.

Unfortunately, humans have the ability to ruin their source energy by thinking too much and creating more chaos and madness in their lives than peace. And when people do that, dogs go the other way — dogs may hide or fight back when a human is unconscious in energy.

So they see us as love. They give us the benefit of what we really are: Source energy. And we can be like our dogs, who are true love. That’s the point of Doga: To become more like a dog, to live in the source all the time, to be unconditional in love and peace. Sadly, most people aren’t conscious of their source and that they can be happier.

To summarize, they see us just like they see all other beings: We’re all the same. We’re all source energy. We just have different packages carrying that source around.