This Holidays 4 Dogs article will look at the question of whether dogs need other dogs as friends in order to live happy lives. Dogs are capable of forming extremely strong bonds with humans, but could it be possible they might be missing out if they spend too much time with their owners and not enough time socialising with lots of other dogs? Is it enough for dogs to have strong relationships with their human pack members, or do dogs need to live with other dogs or to lead an active social life with opportunities to meet new canines on a regular basis?
Dogs are indeed, social creatures, but they are also creatures of habit. They bond with certain members of their pack whether that is a human or canine member. This might include other permanent resident dogs in household, dogs that become semi-permanent such as foster dogs or dogs being home boarded, dogs they regularly meet at a dog club or dog walking areas.
Pet dogs have been selectively bred over centuries to be sociable with people and other animals. However, conflict can still arise and it is not always necessary for dogs to meet and greet every dog they see, indeed some dogs may even find this stressful; others are indifferent. Mixing with unfamiliar dogs can be positive and certainly, socialising your dog with as many different experiences, including other dogs, is good practice and essential in helping the dog to become well balanced. This must be supervised though, because equally, allowing dogs to run loose with lots of unfamiliar dogs of different sizes and temperaments can produce negative reactions from some dogs; they may perhaps develop fear or hostility as a result of inappropriate interactions.
As a result of selective breeding dogs are incredibly dependent on their human owners and this has been borne out in studies which suggest that dogs bond with humans in the same way babies do with their mothers. The natural environment of the modern dog is with their human family in human social settings so that while socialising with other dogs can be beneficial, and often fun for the dog, research suggests it is isn’t always completely necessary. This supports the idea that socialisation of pet dogs with other dogs should always be monitored and supervised by humans.
A study by Traci Cipponeri and Paul Verrell from Washinton State University, in 2003 adds further weight to this from their studies of wolf packs. Studying the social interactions of wolf groups they concluded that they were characterized by, “uneasy alliances”.
Indeed, having owned dogs for many years of differing types and temperaments, I would concur that while dogs are happy to form bonds with other dogs, it is not necessary, and can even be detrimental for them to meet and greet every dog while out walking. Studies have shown that dogs form friendships in similar ways to humans in that they form relationships over time, and in doing so, learn about the consequences of specific social interactions.
However, “uneasy alliances”, perhaps rather like people, do seem to feature in interactions between strange dogs. Indeed, I have noticed not just my own dogs, but other people’s dogs frequently show signs of unease when meeting unfamiliar and strange dogs, while those who they have regularly met previously will often race and play for short periods with familiar canine pals. Many however quickly loose interest and spend time sniffing around alone; others are more focused on their owners and will prefer to play a game of fetch with their owner rather than play with another dog.
The pack instinct in domestic dogs is similar to that of the wolf in that the dog will follow a certain hierarchy in order to keep order, but the dynamics of this is constantly changing even in established packs within the family and is more noticeable amongst multiple dog households. In Cipponeri’s and Verrell’s wolf study it was noted that during the pre-breeding season for instance tensions between the ranks of various animals were recorded.
It might be suggested that similar tensions between domestic dogs can be heightened further when they mix with other unfamiliar dogs who will not only have different temperaments, but have different levels of obedience and bonds with their owners. For example, dogs who have weak bonds with owners who have perhaps not established firm obedience, will often impulsively attempt to establish a pecking order when they meet other dogs and this is increased when three or more dogs are involved.
Problems are apt to arise particularly where the dogs involved have not been trained well and are allowed to run off lead with multiple unfamiliar dogs and without supervision from owners. Pack structure is a complex subject with regard to pet dogs, but many people don’t even know it exists. If one ‘ill mannered’ dog is competing for a certain rank amongst others, a scuffle may ensue and invariably, other dogs will instinctively join in.
However, dogs that have strong bonds with owners, who have trained them in a fair, consistent and non-confrontational manner, will be more apt to avoid confrontation. According to some dog training experts, dogs do not actually want the role of pack leader but actively welcome social leadership by other members of the pack; some dogs even show stress at being put in the position of having to be the pack leader and most are happy to be led by their human owners who are up to the job! Please see our other Holidays 4 Dogs article about how to become the pack leader.
If the attachment between dog and owner is strong the dog is much more likely to behave in socially acceptable ways because he is content that he can depend on his owner to protect and care for him.
While dogs certainly benefit from mixing with their own kind, this must be carefully managed by owners so that the dog in question gets the maximum enjoyment out of the experience. It cannot be a question of letting dogs run wild with other dogs. Because of the dependency the modern dog has on the human it is now up to us to be responsible owners and ensure our dogs behave in a socially acceptable manner both in human and canine circles. We must decide when and how the dog should socialise with other dogs.
Dogs do learn from other canines and it is important for them to have the opportunity to be with their own kind and indeed, they can and do form very strong bonds with each other. At Holidays 4 Dogs we have carers who have their own dogs so it is possible for clients to choose a carer where their dog will have a companion to interact with while you are away. Resident dogs are always evaluated by our qualified staff at the carers interview and home visit and only those with well behaved, sociable dogs will be accepted. In addition, clients always meet their carers and any other resident dogs well before a dog stay to make sure everyone gets along. Our carers are advised on the best way to introduce client dogs to resident dogs and this is always off territory and on-lead initially, with maximum supervision from carers.
Dogs are social creatures not only amongst their own kind, but with the humans they share their lives with and also other animals they live with. They are certainly at their happiest when they are allowed to be sociable, but it would also seem that the species that dogs relate to is less important than the quality of that relationship and interaction.