Interactions between species: How is the bond between humans and dogs generated?

Pets are an important part of many people’s lives, it would not be risky to claim that we all know at least one person who has a cat, a dog or some type of rodent. These interactions are so important that the bond between people and their pets has generated study interest.
Could it be that our beloved pet would come to our rescue? With this question in mind, many of us have tried to simulate these situations resulting in a sometimes exacerbated response from the pet or a cold, harsh and calculating indifference. In a study developed at Arizona State University’s School of Psychology, they proposed the same experiment and tested the reaction of pets to a “life or death” situation for their human companion and where their pet can rescue them.
In this sense, we do not really know who is smarter, whether our pets to interpret the situation or us to create it, however, the researchers used a paradigm or study model that has been part of other research, but applied to mice or rats. This paradigm corresponds to that of social liberation, in which the time it takes to activate prosocial behavior is basically quantified, or of help without self-interest, where an individual releases another animal that is usually in a cage.
Study the behavior of dogs
While, to this day, there is discussion about how to improve methods for studying behavior, this methodology has been widely applied, but not to other canine or human study models. Researchers use this paradigm to analyze what are the most important keys for a dog to identify a situation as dangerous to its master. Basically, they lock people inside boxes and according to the instructions they receive they perform an action, whether it is screaming in fear, reading a book or being calm, and you can see how their dog, who is nearby and not locked up, acts in response.
The researchers first evaluated different pets and detected those dogs that could open the cage, these being the majority. Once they knew which animals could naturally carry out the activity, they measured the time it took for the dog to approach the box to release its master in the different situations. Analyzing these results shows us that the level of stress shown by their masters influenced the speed with which the dogs acted, but much more interesting is that as the repetitions increased, the response time of the dogs increased in the case of a stressed master and decreased if the master was reading, something like the story of “Pedrito y el lobo” but in this case the one who detects the lie is the dog.
These results tell us that dogs are able to integrate information from previous rescues, they can act accordingly and that they also have their own curiosity to check their master without the need for a problem, something quite known to all those who have been in contact with them.
While the researchers could already be happy to show that this method of study could be applied to study other animals, they wanted to go further and wondered, What is more important for the dog? Your master or food at your disposal. This was the second step of the study and in this case we must feel deceived by our peers. While a significant group of dogs first approached the cage where their master was locked up, showing true prosocial behavior, most pets decided to go see the food, without necessarily eating it, but it was more than enough for the researchers to consider food to be an important factor in deciding whether to execute the rescue or not.
What we can stay with from this study is that dogs are able to rescue their owners without explicit training and are able to detect the emotions of their masters in a disinterested way, as long as there is no food in sight. This is one more element to analyze the relationship that exists between pet, human and food, since not only could they rescue us, but this relationship also generates long-term effects on their owners.
A positive bond
Recent studies indicate that having a pet as a company and being able to pet it generates very positive effects in people who are subjected to constant stress, such as students at exam time, generating an improvement in their stress response. But this is not the only effect that caring for an animal would have. While there is a saying that “perhaps, saving an animal will not change the world, but the life of that animal will,” recent studies would indicate that it is possible that we are saving ourselves in the act.
In this line, a study this year also mentions that, at the time of rescuing an animal, the relationship that is generated nourishes both the animal and the human, increasing the levels of resilience in the latter, an effect that would be observable in the long term. The researchers of this collaboration between the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana of Colombia and the Lewis and Clark College of the United States, tell us about an autopoietic unit that evolves together with its participants and that rescuing an animal, whatever it may be, also saves us.
This concept refers to the idea that living beings believe in the act of existing (from the Greek auto: to himself, and poiesis: creation), but this concept can not only be applied to life, but to systems as diverse as metabolic networks or the relationship that exists between two living beings that interact actively and mutually, with its own system of not necessarily explicit rules; something like when we look at our dog and only by his eyes we already know that he is looking at our food and wants to make us feel guilty. But this type of relationship with traumatized animals or those that require help first generates an improvement in the life of the animal in question, but that same impact and progress generates a change in the person who helps, is no longer the same, product of their action. I do not know, if this point is remarkable for some people, but it would be telling us that it is much better to save an abandoned animal, despite the fact that it has little life left, than to take the option of buying one.
It is possible that advances in methodologies show us more information about our link with the animals that accompany us and that perhaps it is better that as a species we think about the effect we have on other lives, since, although the focus of these studies have been companion animals or injured wild animals, our interactions go further and we need to think about the effects of our actions not only for ourselves, but with all of us who share the planet.
 In memory of Peggy, who rescued me.
*This article arises from the agreement with the Interdisciplinary Center of Neuroscience of the University of Valparaíso.

Original source in Spanish

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