Unlike kittens, dogs totally lose their minds when their owners come home after any period away.
It is a happiness that does not fit within them. Now experts explain why.
To understand the behavior of dogs, we need to understand that they are descended from wolves (or at least have a common ancestor).
The two species were separated about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, so any inferences about their similarities are pure speculation. Still, researchers believe dogs are categorically different due to the fact that their ancestors actively sought the companionship of humans.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns argues that there is a fundamental difference between modern wolves and those who lived long ago. According to him, the ancestors who came to live around humans had to have been the most social of wolves. These eventually evolved into cute dogs, as we know today.
The rest of the wolf population were among the most antisocial of these animals, and wanted nothing to do with humans.
That said, however, Berns confirms that we can clearly see wolf behavior that is similar to that expressed by dogs.
For example, wolves greet each other by licking their faces. For these animals, behavior is not only socially important, but also a way of checking and determining what other wolves brought home in terms of food. Wild dogs behave similarly.
The big change in terms of adaptive sociability has been the ability of domesticated dogs to interact with humans using our own communication signals, such as looks and gestures.
Dog expert Jessica Hekman has been studying wolf-greeting behaviors. According to her, some of wolf-specific behaviors resemble dog behaviors, but are much more ritualized. She witnessed a behavioral study in which well-known wolves had been separated for a few days and put back together. The greeting rituals were fascinating, with wolves bending down and licking the subordinates' chin.
We can see these behaviors in dogs, but more sporadically without such intensity. At the same time, dogs exhibit behaviors that are markedly different from wolves.
As Hekman explained, one of the most dramatic differences between dogs and wolves is dogs' ability to accept novelty. Simply put, dogs are less fearful than wolves.
This may sound a bit odd, especially since a wolf looks so much more fatal. But that's where the difference lies: Wolves can opt for proactive measures to protect themselves using their teeth. Dogs are much less likely to do this.
In fact, given their ancestry, it is remarkable that dogs get along so well with humans. As Berns points out, sociability turned out to be a very powerful adaptation that has worked much better for dogs than for wolves.
There are many more dogs in the world than wolves. That is, dogs have proven to have a highly effective evolutionary strategy. There are in the order of tens of millions of dogs worldwide, so in many ways they have evolved “better” than wolves.
How dogs see humans
A key aspect of Berns research is studying how dogs see us. We humans know that dogs are a separate species, but are dogs also aware of this difference? Or do they see us as their peers, or as some kind of weird dog?
According to Berns, dogs that are presented with certain scents on scanners can clearly tell the difference between other dogs and humans, and also discern and recognize familiar and strange odors. In particular, the smell of a familiar human being evokes a rewarding response in the dogs brain.
No other smell does that, not even another dog they know. That means they know we are different, and there is a special place in their brains just for us.
Berns points out that dogs are fond of their owners not just for food reasons. They love the company of humans for their own good.
So happy to see you
Virtually all experts agree that dogs feel a happiness that is comparable to what humans do.
Dogs obviously don't have the same language skills, and they can't represent the things they think like us. Because dogs don't understand people's names, researchers suspect that they have an even purer emotional response. And their minds are filled with all kinds of abstract concepts.
It is also important to consider the degree of attachment. A dog's particular greetings are dependent on many factors, such as his temperament, the owner's personality, the nature of his relationship, the level of stress and anxiety, and the dog's tendency / self-control ability.
But why are you so happy?
The exaggerated level of greeting that can be observed in some dogs is probably due to the fact that they have not yet learned to accept the possibility of non-voluntary separation from their owners. Dogs have probably had a very boring day away from their owners, which can be especially unpleasant for a social animal.
So besides being happy to see us, they're probably feeling some relief that something interesting is going to happen, like going for a walk, or having someone around.
How to greet your dog back
Obviously it is important to respond to your dog when you get home, but according to Marcello Siniscalchi, a veterinarian at the University of Bari, how you respond will depend on the context of the situation and the dog's own needs.
According to him, some dogs need to be received. With others, it is best to avoid any escalation at the excitement level. Still others need to learn strategies for coping with the stress associated with detachment.