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Dogs have friends, right? Just think about how excited they get when they see each other. No one greets an acquaintance like that. Plus, there’s piles of qualitative evidence. We’d estimate that 40% of the internet is content about dog friendships.
But not everyone is so convinced. In 2003 Traci Cipponeri and Paul Verrell of Washington State University at Pullman wrote an article for the Canadian Journal of Zoology exploring the social interactions of wolves. They reported that other than in cases concerning family members, most interactions between wolves were at best “uneasy alliances” between individuals with shared goals or interests. Basically they weren’t friends but more occasional collaborators. Many took this as evidence that our domestic mates were probably less sentimental than we’d like to think.
The thing is, dogs aren’t wolves. They’re thousands of years removed from them–and a lot can happen in a few millennia. In fact, when looking at the modern dog, it’s probably harder to find someone they don’t consider a friend. As we wrote about last year, some dog behaviour experts report “dogs have specific genes that in humans are associated with ‘indiscriminate friendliness.’ They’re literally hard-coded to be stoked to see anyone and everyone.”
But when it comes to best dog friendships, it’s a bit murkier. Like many social animals, it’s not uncommon for them to develop bonds with other animals (dog or not). One study published in Nature observed that dogs will share their treats with each other, even if it means they have to go without. Researchers saw that act as being a gesture of goodwill, and noted it was even more likely to occur if they knew the other animal already (sounds like friendship to us).
In general, it’s suggested that dogs feel particularly warm towards animals that have similar play styles to them. For example: some dogs like to run while others like to wrestle, some find being chased exciting, but for others it’s stressful.
Dogs that are close will usually stick together and may be more willing to share food, toys, and other belongings. Although even the friendliest dogs often struggle to go that far and want to keep their possessions to themselves (fair).
How Do Dog Friendships Form?
As mentioned, a similar play style goes a long way when it comes to building dog friendships. But they also take social signals from other physical and smell cues. That’s why when two dogs meet they’ll spend a bit of time sniffing each other out and moving their bodies around to get a sense of each other.
One other thing we might not always consider is that dogs have pretty good memories and they can be quick to hold a grudge–even against animals they don’t know. If they’ve had a bad experience with one dog, they might be weary of other animals that look or smell similar.
While you can’t force a dog to make friends, you can do a few things to nudge them in the right direction.
Firstly, don’t rush or force them, that will only stress them out and make a connection less likely. Introduce them in an open, neutral space: like a park or on a walk together (but not with you walking both) where they have a lot of room. This gives them a chance to sniff each other, but also move away if they need space.
If they seem relaxed around each other, you can consider a playdate or allow them to hang out in a more confined space (like your home). But even then, make sure you feed them separately and remove any toys they may feel possessive over
Being pack animals, one dog might try to dominate the other. This in itself isn’t a big issue, dogs like having a clear hierarchy. Although issues can arise if they both want to be top dog. One way to avoid this is to establish yourself as the alpha, then they both need to fall in line and may not see each other as rivals.
As with any training situation, reward them when things go well. If they have a nice encounter with another dog, give them a treat or a pat.
Are You Their Friend?
Being around familiar, trusted animals can make a dog feel more safe, comfortable, and exhibit less aggression. They’re also often more likely to handle change well if they have a buddy around. But, that said, don’t discount your own relationship with them. You’re most likely always going to be their number one.
Which begs the question, do they see you as a friend? While they no doubt love you, it’s tricky to define that as “friendship”. Researchers at Budapest’s Eötvös Lorand University have reported that the bond between dogs and owners is more like that between parents and children. They feel close to you and know they can depend on you, but also (hopefully) see you as the authority figure they should follow. This isn’t just the result of you teaching them to sit, thousands of years of domestication have embedded a connection to humans within them. As head of the Budapest team, Vilmos Cysani, explains “the dog’s natural environment is the human family or other human social settings”.
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