By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT-FLE
When humans started to express themselves on cavern walls, dogs were soon portrayed in various scenes ranging from attack to hunting. Where dogs truly hunting with humans or did dogs simply tag along because they saw a great opportunity to catch scraps of food left by human hunters. Today, we'll explore human and dog relationships; are dogs true companions, or have they evolved as symbiotic partners. The answer might surprise you.
Dog owners, it seems, struggle to answer the why do you have a dog question. It’s funny how the simplest question is by far the hardest one to answer. I've asked this question to the majority of my clients for the last 20 years. It's true the majority of people answer companionship as the number one reason, but decades later, I still don’t have a clear reason as to why people share their lives with dogs. Let me explain.
I’ve always found the companionship answer to be superficial and meaningless. Think about the definition of companionship for a moment and you'll be propelled into the realm of confusion. To illustrate my point, consider the following definitions.
- Companionship: a feeling of fellowship or friendship.
- Friendship: a state of mutual trust and support between individuals.
- Fellowship: friendly association, especially with people who share one's interests.
Can your relationship be explained by these definitions? I think not. Here’s why. A companion relationship relates to a shared social structure, common linguistics, and mutual interests between two individuals. Although similar, humans and dogs don’t share the same social structure, nor do people talk dog or share mutual interests. I don't know about you, but I don't have the urge to roll in dead insects, eat poop, or smell other dogs' behinds. It's true we are two social species, but I don't bark or growl at people when I'm uncomfortable or angry. In other words, dogs are not human companions.
A symbiotic relationship, on the other hand, is an exchange between two different species; the relationship can benefit or hinder both individuals. Symbiotic relationships are essential to organisms that enter them because they offer a balance which is only achieved by working together.
Humans have bred dogs based on symbiotic relationships for generations. Hunters employ dogs to find and bring back prey; farmers need dogs to organize and move livestock; public safety officials breed and train dogs to serve and protect; the entire terrier group saw the light of day to assist in vermin control. Throughout the decades, dogs have entered human lives with a very specific purpose in mind. A symbiotic relationship is by definition a working partnership, not a companionship. When a dog enters a home it should be to fulfil a service, whatever the service need be. To deprive an animal of performing the work it was created for is, in my opinion, cruel and abusive.
I’m in a symbiotic relationship with my dog. As my work partner, Albear offers educational lessons to aspiring puppies; he helps facilitate my human interventions; he assists me when my medical condition reduces my mobility; consequently, my dog is my partner. In return, I provide healthcare, excellent nutrition, training opportunities, comfortable sleep areas, play sessions, and exploration situations.
The conundrum lies within the reason people have dogs: companionship. Although social media is omnipresent in our lives, people feel lonelier than ever before. The emotional isolation is often compensated through dog interactions. Unfortunately, dogs make poor surrogate people. Companionship relationships with dogs are truly parasitic ones. One abuses* the other till the relationship breaks down. Unfortunately, re-homing, abandonment, or death severs the dysfunctional link.
Thankfully, it is possible to change a companionship relationship into a symbiotic partnership; however, one question needs to be answered before I can explain how to change dysfunctional relationships into a functional one. Tell me, why do you have a dog?
- Merriam Webster. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary
- Bekoff, M. & Pierce, J. (2009). Wild Justice; The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
* takes more than gives in return: human or dog.