The increasingly important role of dogs in modern society
Dogs: Their omnipresence in our society as working dogs, family pets, even family members.
Domesticated dogs date back to the Iron Age (circa 1430 BC). They were traditionally used for hunting. In some more pastoral societies they played a role in guarding and herding stock (sheep and cattle dogs). Dogs were expected to search for their food themselves (hunting, stealing food remains, gathering) and there was no control over breeding.
In the Middle Ages, dogs were used as draught animals, to pull small carts for farms, peddlers, or travelers (milk, fish, rags & bones, meat, bread, and other products).
In today’s modern societies with mainly large urban populations and with increasing wealth, the integration of pets into our households has intensified. The interactions between humans and dogs have changed. Dogs today are kept for personal security, as companions, for guarding property, as helpers, as sports companions and as family members.
Not so long ago there was a shift in our perception of animal companions, so that they are now seen less as possessions, and more as individuals in their own right, even as members of our extended family.
A proof of this shift is that many insurance companies now offer special health insurance policies for pets, whereas only a few years ago, pets (in Switzerland at least) were insured together with the other “interior equipment” of your house, against water and fire damage not against illnesses or accidents. Just to take an example, it’s only in 2009 that the big insurance company Mobiliar in Switzerland changed this policy.
Code civile français: le chien n’est pas un bien mais un être avec des sentiments …
For more reading
→ The Evolution of Pet Ownership
→ A Review of Domestic Dogs' (Canis Familiaris) Human-Like Behaviors: Or Why Behavior Analysts Should Stop Worrying and Love Their Dogs
→ Understanding dog–human companionship
Although most modern dogs are kept as pets and family members, there are still a tremendous number of ways in which dogs assist humans in modern society, and more uses are found for them every year.
The following list provides just some ideas of the versatility of dogs and attests to the immensely important role dogs have taken on, as irreplaceable helpers without which our modern society would simply not be conceivable anymore:
Service or assistance dogs help people with various disabilities in everyday tasks. Some examples include mobility assistance dogs for the physically handicapped, guide dogs for the visually impaired, and hearing dogs for the hearing impaired.
Therapy dogs provide cheer and entertainment for the elderly in retirement facilities, the ill and injured in hospitals, and so on.
Rescue dogs assist people who are in desperate situations, such as having fallen overboard after a boat disaster, being lost in the wilderness, covered in snow under avalanches, buried under collapsed buildings, etc.
Herding dogs are still invaluable to sheep and cattle farmers.
Hunting dogs assist hunters in finding, tracking, and retrieving game.
Guard dogs and watch dogs help to protect private or public property.
Tracking dogs help in finding lost people and animals or tracking down suspected criminals.
Cadaver dogs or Human Remains Detection Dogs use their scenting ability to discover bodies or human remains at the scenes of disasters, crimes, accidents, or suicides.
Detection dogs help to detect explosives, illegal substances in luggage, chemicals and many other substances: even bedbugs in homes!
Police dogs are usually trained to track or immobilize suspected criminals while assisting officers in making arrests or investigating the scene of a crime.
Dogs are sometimes used in programs to assist children in learning how to read.
Cancer detection dogs can detect certain types of cancer.
For more reading
In addition to being indispensable service dogs in uncountable fields, pets – especially dogs – have become valuable companions, and we see them as almost human creatures with their own personalities. This might be explained by our increasingly technology-oriented society, where inter-human face-to-face contact, affection and emotions are rarifying.
The care we give dogs nowadays is often close to that given to children: Quality nutrition, health care, sterilization to control birth rate, regular vaccinations, follow-up veterinary controls… Dogs are elevated to the role of surrogate humans and are mainly valued for the affective benefits we enjoy from their close attachments. We develop a deep emotional bond and affection during our life together.
Never before have we humans spent so much time together with our dog companions, entirely sharing our private life with them. Sport’s activities such as agility, obedience, dog dance, frisbee etc. – just to mention a few – take a big part of our spare time, where we can work together as a team, share experiences, collaborate towards an aim. Dogs have for the first time since their common existence with humans, become our social partners.
In addition to providing emotional and social benefits, pet ownership improves physical and mental health. Recent studies show in fact that pet ownership reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, helps to prevent heart disease, helps to fight depression, and therefore lowers one's healthcare costs. One possible explanation for these health benefits lies in the fact that pet owners, particularly dog owners, are more physically active than non-pet owners.
While the findings of such studies are interesting and help to explain the benefits of people keeping pets, most pet owners know that there is much more to the special pet–human relationship: the deep emotional bond and magical communication between dogs and owners.
How can this strong emotional bond, this cross-species love story, be explained? And why do dog owners grieve so much when their dog passes away?
Time has elapsed since Alice left us, but I still think of her every day. Some days less, some days more, making my heart ache. Speaking about her always evokes strong emotions, regrets, deep sorrow. Like most of us of my age, I have already experienced losing loved ones – grandparents, parents, sister, friends etc. - but none of the pain and suffering compares to the grief, guilt, and heartbreak I experienced, and am still experiencing, with the passing away of Alice. Why? How come a dog becomes such an important part of our lives?
“After all it was just a dog” or “Fortunately you have 2 more wonderful dogs” or “Think about all the wonderful things you have experienced together” or “Alice had a wonderful life.”
But Alice was (every dog is in the eyes of its owner) more than “just a dog”: she was irreplaceable, special, my girl, daughter, baby, protégée, friend, my partner, part of me, my unique preoccupation, my every day, my future …
We give our dogs food, water, shelter, protection and education. But what they give us back in return are experiences and life lessons which no amount of money can buy. And when they finally leave us, it is as if this spring of limitless youth and positivity has finally dried up. We feel like a parent who has to bury its child: It contradicts the natural life cycle. The grief is immense and intense, we are full of regrets, guilt and incomprehension. That is why we spend so much time, energy and money on the health of our dogs. It is so difficult to grapple with our dog’s death because:
1. Dogs are our everyday companions
Besides your spouse (and working colleagues), there is probably no one else you see every day. They are there waiting when we open our eyes in the morning; they are at home waiting for us excitedly when we return after work or shopping. We take for granted having them around; and when they are no longer there, we feel a black hole in our heart, the painful loss, the missing part of our life and daily life.
2. Dogs are our mirrors to life
Many of us buy or adopt our canine friends as 8-10-week-old puppies. We watch them grow up, become defiant adolescents, mellow down with age, then eventually, grow sick or old, and die. We accompany them throughout the entire life cycle of birth, youth, adulthood, old age, sickness and death. Dogs are mirrors of the realities of life, of impermanence and transience. These realities are extremely difficult for us humans to deal with. They evoke intense emotions for us – including grief, guilt, regret, and above all fear.
3. Dogs are our protégés
You had to teach your puppy how to pee and poop in the right place; how to sit before a meal; how to walk on a leash; what not to chew. We are our dogs’ mentors, teachers, parents, protectors, and bodyguards, and we watch them blossom from clueless puppy to excellent canine citizen - hopefully. They are what we teach them. They represent our image of the ideal dog. They are the results of our training efforts.
4. Dogs are our children
Dogs are like little children, from the day they come into our lives as a puppy, till their death in old age. In fact, researchers have found that a dog’s intelligence is comparable to a 2 to 3 year old human toddler, making them cutely childlike, even in old age. Often, we see them as our children.
5. Dogs are our love-therapists
Studies have shown that when we look into a dog’s eyes, the level of the hormone oxytocin increases in our blood. Oxytocin promotes “pro-social” behaviors such as relaxation, trust, improved psychological stability, and altruism in humans.
It is thought that oxytocin in both mother and infant is increased when a mother gazes into her baby’s eyes, and when the baby gazes back. For these reasons, oxytocin is also sometimes called the “love hormone”.
In some studies of owners and dogs, oxytocin levels rose by up to 300% when they gazed at each other, substantiating the existence of a human-dog relationship that is similar to that of human mother-infant relations.
In other words – our love grows with our canine companions, the longer we share our life with them.
6. Dogs are our life therapists
We learn a lot from our dogs. We learn about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. Mostly, they teach us about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.
7. Dogs give us unconditional love
Your dog might not be a perfect dog. Perhaps he has food aggression, or snaps when he is unhappy. Has bitten you, your friends, groomer and vet. Barks loudly at strangers, other dogs, vacuum cleaners, and anything else. LOVEs eating plants and has massacred your garden like a tornado leaving a trail of destruction.
Despite their imperfections, we love them all the same.
Our love for our dogs is unconditional, and so is their love for us. It is often very difficult to replicate this with another human being, because we bring with us so many expectations when we deal with people. With dogs, the bond is special, and very different. We can be ourselves, with no fear of being judged. We can love without restraint and with abandon: this is what we do with our canine friends. Through our dogs, we learn to love and to be loved, unconditionally.
8. Dogs are equal family members
There is nowhere our dogs would rather be than next to us – whether awake or sleeping. We are their world
We have our work, friends, family. But our dogs only have us. We are aware of this fact at the back of our minds, and hence, we take extra care to make sure that their needs are met. We feel guilty when we go on holidays, or when we spend too much time away from home. We are their world, and in the process, they become a very large part of ours.
9. Dogs are genuine and frank
Dogs are not like humans. They show it when they are happy, angry or sad. They jump in joy when you are home, sulk when you leave the house. They growl when another dog is trying to snatch their bone. They express their emotions with frankness and abandon. Their feelings are absolutely genuine.
10. Dogs are individuals with personalities
No two dogs are alike. Even if they look the same, they will have different personalities, quirks, and things which define them. Every dog is irreplaceable. After our dog’s death, we will never be able to find another dog who is exactly the same again. This makes us miss them even more after they are gone.
11. Dogs are our true companions
Dogs are nature’s most wonderful healers. That is why, after a long day, all we want to do is go home to see our dogs. When we are feeling low, we may not want to meet other people, yet, our dogs will make us feel better.
12. In your dog you’ve got a friend
→ You've Got A Friend / Carole King
When we need company, our canine friends always give their all for us: rain or shine, day or night, summer, winter, autumn or fall, here and now or beyond. We’ve got a friend.