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How dogs function in society impacts how they are treated

Dogs have long been considered our best friends, assisting humans in various tasks such as hunting, guarding, and herding. However, research on dog cognition and the nature of dog-human relationships has primarily focused on Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies. This leaves a gap in our understanding of the complex bonds between dogs and their owners in diverse cultural environments. 

To address this, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Geoanthropology and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology studied data on the functions and treatment of dogs in 124 globally distributed societies.

The researchers examined ethnographic data from the eHRAF cross-cultural database to identify societies where dogs serve any of five main functions: hunting, defense, guarding herds, herding, and carrying or transporting supplies. They then gathered data on how dogs were treated in these societies and coded it into three dimensions: positive care, negative treatment, and personhood.

Their findings revealed that the number of functions a dog performs in a society is positively associated with positive care and personhood, and negatively associated with negative treatment. However, not all functions influenced treatment equally.

For example, herding was particularly likely to increase positive care, while hunting had no impact on positive care or negative treatment but did increase the odds of personhood. This suggests that in societies where dogs are kept for hunting, humans are more likely to name their dogs and perceive them as family members.

Interestingly, the study also found that negative treatment and positive care are not mutually exclusive. Out 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 indicates that the dog-human relationship is not as simple 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,” said 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.”

Dogs became human companions through a process known as domestication, which started around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. The domestication of dogs is thought to have begun when wolves, the ancestors of modern dogs, began to scavenge near human campsites. Over time, a mutually beneficial relationship developed between early humans and these wolves.

The exact process of dog domestication remains debated among scientists, but there are two main hypotheses:

  1. Self-domestication hypothesis: This theory suggests that wolves that were more comfortable around humans and showed less fear and aggression had a higher chance of accessing the food scraps left behind by early human populations. As a result, these wolves had a higher survival rate and eventually began to reproduce more successfully than their more aggressive counterparts. Over generations, these tamer wolves evolved into a separate population that increasingly relied on humans for food and protection, eventually leading to the emergence of the first domesticated dogs.
  2. Active domestication hypothesis: In this scenario, early humans took a more active role in the domestication process. They may have captured wolf pups and raised them as pets or working animals, selecting for specific traits such as tameness, loyalty, or hunting ability. As humans selectively bred these wolves, they began to diverge from their wild counterparts, eventually giving rise to the diverse dog breeds we know today.

Throughout history, dogs have played various roles in human societies, from hunting and herding to companionship and protection. This close relationship has led to the coevolution of dogs and humans, with both species adapting to the needs of each other. Dogs have developed unique cognitive and social skills that help them understand and communicate with humans, while humans have also evolved to better understand and interpret dog behavior.

The researchers hope that future studies will shed more light on 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 utilize them in multiple ways. Why did some societies begin employing dogs for multiple purposes? Did such use provide significant benefits? And if so, what were they? Answering these questions will offer new insights into how dogs and humans have influenced each other throughout our shared history.

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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