First, two great reads on our relationships with domesticated critters from The Thoughtful Animal:
On bonding and recognition: Biological Evidence That Dog is Man’s Best Friend
On dogs, horses, and social cues: A horse is a horse, of course of course
Don’t miss the links out in the first paragraph – good stuff.
We’ve spent a lot of time here at The Thoughtful Animal thinking about how domestication has allowed dogs to occupy a unique niche in the social lives of humans. They readily understand human communication cues such as eye-gaze and finger-pointing, and capitalize on the infant-caregiver attachment system to have their own needs met. There are several explanations for the emergence of these abilities in dogs:
(1) domestic dogs inherited these abilities from their wolf ancestors;
(2) dogs learn social communication cues by associative learning, simply by sharing physical and social space with humans; and
(3) through the process of domestication, the ability to read human social-communicative cues has emerged due to selection pressures and convergent evolution.
There is pretty solid evidence that dogs far outperform wolves in these tasks, so for now we can safely place that explanation to the side. There is evidence that various species, following intense experience with humans, display improved abilities in reading human social cues, including apes, dolphins, seals, ravens, and parrots. However, in dogs this skill emerges incredibly early in development (before there’s been the same sort of intense enculturation that other species require), and does not appear to change significantly with age (remember the thing about finding developmental signatures?) That domestication appears to be the best explanation for the emergence of these abilities in dogs suggests that other domesticated species may show similar skills.
And here’s one on how dogs have an innate habit of imitating people:
…it may be very rare in the animal kingdom for one species to almost subconsciously imitate the behavior of a completely different species.
The dog-human bond may therefore have few, if any, parallels.
Which, of course, leads to things like this: