Does My Dog Think I’m A Dog?

Dogs and humans have lived side-by-side for millennia. Yet even though they have a long history as “man’s best friend,” your dog does recognize that you’re not a dog.

“Dogs can clearly distinguish a species difference,” says Dr. Wailani Sung, veterinary behaviorist and director of behavior and welfare programs at San Francisco Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Humans and dogs smell different, look different, and behave differently—so when your dog interacts with you, they get a clear signal that you’re not a furless, two-legged version of them. In fact, your dog may understand the pet-human dynamic better than you realize.

How Do Dogs Know We’re Human?

Your dog’s nose is much more sensitive than yours. Over 300 million receptors in their noses are dedicated to the sense of smell, compared to your measly 6 million receptors. Your dog also has a Jacobson’s organ specifically built to detect pheromones.

Dr. Sung says people don’t have the scent glands around their mouths or cheeks that would give them a more dog-like smell. So, it’s pretty obvious to your dog that you lack the natural canine perfume.

2013 study found dogs are quite good at recognizing other dogs from images. When researchers showed dogs photos of various animals, they reliably picked out their fellow canines. A Boston Terrier may not have much of a muzzle or tail, but they still appear more dog-like than a cat or human child.

In short, even if your dog lost their sense of smell, they could probably still tell you weren’t a dog—your two-legged stance and opposable thumbs give the game away.

Dog puts paw in person's hand


Do Dogs Think Humans Are Their Parents?

Despite the difference in species, humans who call themselves a “dog parent” aren’t too far off the mark.

“I’m not sure if dogs see us as a parent, but they may see us as a provider,” says Dr. Sung. After all, you give your dog food and shelter. You comfort them with snuggles and teach them how to sit for treats.

It’s unclear whether dogs have the same concept of “parent” as humans do, but Dr. Sung says they definitely consider people nurturing figures.

Similar to human infants and their mothers, dogs often treat their main human as a “secure base”. A human’s presence can give a dog the confidence to explore their world, knowing their carer is nearby in case something happens. If they do encounter something scary, like a mailman or a motorcycle, a dog will act less stressed if they know their human is around.

What about other family members?

Of course, your dog won’t consider every human in the household a parental figure. “Dogs do have a different relationship with adults compared to children, especially 10 and under,” Dr. Sung says.

A child generally isn’t the one feeding and walking the dog, so the dog knows they aren’t in charge. What they do think of kids can depend on the household and the individuals involved. Some dogs consider kids playmates, or tiny charges to guard. Others might get jealous and consider the kids their rivals.

Dogs also tend to view other pets as “siblings” rather than parents. Research suggests that two dogs in the same household will typically have a stronger attachment to their human than to each other.

How Does This Affect The Dog/Human Relationship?

Over the course of centuries, people have bred dogs to be attuned to the needs of humans. After all, it’s hard to train a working dog who doesn’t care what you say.

Although dogs can’t speak your language, they can understand up to 165-250 words. They also rely a lot on nonverbal cues, like body language or tone of voice. They can even tell your mood based on chemicals in your sweat.

Dogs are often willing to go the extra mile to cross the species divide. Among dogs, eye contact is often a challenge, so they don’t stare into each other’s eyes. But dogs know that humans use eye contact to express affection, so when you look at your dog, they’ll stare lovingly back.

Of course, there are limits to a dog’s communication abilities. Some human behaviors, like kisses or foot massages, just don’t translate well across species. That’s why it’s important to show your love in a way your dog can understand.

Child and dog playing in street

AnnaZhuk via iStock

Did Domestication Change How Dogs Perceive Humans?

Wolves know all too well that humans aren’t animals. People have spears and swords and guns and have killed many of their kind. While wolves will hunt many creatures, even rival predators, they generally avoid humans.

Even wolf pups raised by people tend to have an instinctive fear of people. One study found that dog puppies are 30 times more likely to approach a stranger than tame wolf puppies.

The same study also compared how wolf and dog pups performed on food-finding tasks. Both species performed equally well in remembering where food was hidden. But when asked to find food that humans pointed to, the dogs performed much better than wolves.

Despite having similar intelligence as dogs, tame wolves just don’t have the evolutionary knowledge to read people. They don’t create pack bonds with humans the way they do in some movies.

Are you part of the “pack”?

It’s worth mentioning that dogs don’t consider humans part of their pack, either. Dr. Sung says wolf packs tend to be very hierarchical, and they work closely together to survive. Even the most diligent working dogs have a more casual relationship with their humans. So while you may be a pet parent, your dog won’t necessarily see you as an “alpha” or pack member.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You and your dog may belong to different species, but they still have plenty of affection for you!

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