Do Dogs Have Besties?
They’re not exactly crafting friendship bracelets for each other, but dog bonds mean something.
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For Lorenzo, the sun rose and set with Mango. Lorenzo is my family’s Havanese, and whenever we would pick him up from doggie daycare, the staff would talk about what a wonderful time he’d had with Mango, a brindle Whippet mix who was easily three times his size. The pair would romp and run and sometimes just sit next to each other and take in the view of the play area. We had another dog at home, Cleo, and while Lorenzo seemed to love her, she didn’t inspire the same ardent passion in him that Mango did. “She’s his best friend!” the people at daycare would say. Do dogs really have “best friends,” though?
“I can tell you that over my years of training, I have seen dogs build bonds with other dogs that are greater than even [the bonds they have with] a dog they live with,” says Larry Benoit, a longtime dog trainer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And they don’t just build these bonds with other dogs, he adds. “I’ve seen them do it with donkeys, cattle, sheep. Even birds.”
It’s tempting to anthropomorphize our pups. I definitely did when I asked Lorenzo if Mango was really his best friend, if they shared secrets, and if they planned to get matching tattoos someday. But while animal bonds and human friendships may be different, there’s no denying that a species as highly sociable as dogs benefits from close relationships. Below, what we know about how dogs make friends, how it can boost their health, and how we, as their parents, can help enrich their social lives.
Dog “Friendships” Are Different Than Ours
Scientists have been working for years to address questions about play and other social behaviors in dogs. Along the way, they have documented, on tape and in notes, a number of striking canine friendships and how they're different from a casual dog park encounter.
In a 2012 cover story for Time magazine, science journalist Carl Zimmer wrote about how different species form friendships, and found that, though dogs form “friendship-type” relationships with other dogs in their home, and have “preferred canine companions,” most scientists think that these “fall well short of true friendship.”
In his story, Zimmer explains that scientists had noted “the lack of evidence in dogs of the constancy, reciprocity and mutual defense observed in species such as chimpanzees and dolphins.” He concludes: “Dogs are neither our best friends nor one another’s — which is not to say they’re not warm and wonderful companions.”
But They Are Drawn to Good Vibes
Even if their closest relationships can’t really be qualified as “friendships,” it’s clear that our pups are more drawn to some dogs than to others. In that way, they’re a lot like people: Sometimes, you meet someone with whom you immediately click, and other times, you meet someone who immediately makes you want to bare your teeth.
“I’m a firm believer that dogs operate off of energy,” Benoit says. “It is an energy from another dog or even another species that would enable them to gravitate towards that. It’s the one-on-one that they give and take with each other.”
Benoit says he’s conducted group-training sessions where two dogs take a liking to each other, and before you know it, “they could care less about the five or six other dogs in the room.” There’s still so much communication between dogs that is invisible to the human eye. But there are signs that dogs are bonding: if they play together, snuggle together, and generally stay close to each other when they’re together.
Dogs Are More Like Pack Members
If your family and family pets are your dog’s primary pack, friends they see regularly become extended pack members. In other words, they are not primary cast members in each other’s lives but featured players. “Just like you have extended family members, like nieces and nephews who don’t live with you in the home,” Benoit explains. These relationships can still be close enough that dogs will grieve the loss of their friend or come to their aid if they sense they’re in danger.
If dogs can have best friends, does this detract from our relationships with them?
“The answer is a definite “no,” says Smuts and Ward. “They still seek us out and adore our company as much as ever. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Dogs can have dog friends and still be close to their people. Access to dog friends makes dogs happier, and happier dogs make for better human companions.”
Benefits of Friendship Between Dogs
Countless studies have shown that friendships can help strengthen a person’s mental and physical well-being. Although there aren’t many similar studies concerning dogs, Benoit says he believes close bonds can help dogs lead better, more fulfilling lives: “It might even possibly help them live longer because a dog that just lays around bored and does nothing or has no other dogs to play with is susceptible to a shorter life than a dog who does have pack members and extended pack members.”
The benefits can be real for any two dogs who enjoy each other’s company. “They often visit each other’s homes. This can offer a great alternative to a kennel or leaving a dog home alone all day. While together, they tire each other out and stimulate each other’s bodies and minds,” says Barbara Smuts, PhD, and Camille Ward, PhD, in their article on dog friendships. “Friends can provide much-needed stability when change threatens a dog’s equilibrium,” such as when a housemate passes away.
Socialize, Socialize, Socialize
The key to setting your dog up for success, Benoit argues, is proper socialization. Ideally, this takes place during the critical development period of three to 16 weeks of age. By gently introducing your puppy to different dogs, people, and experiences during this time, you’ll reduce the likelihood that they’ll be fearful of new dogs, people, and experiences as they get older.
Can a dog’s social needs be met through dog parks or dog daycare? “For some dogs — the confident extroverts — perhaps, but others are more shy, and, as they age, many dogs lose interest in the company of exuberant youngsters. There also exist dogs who don’t get along well with most other dogs, but who can be friends with a special someone,” says Smuts and Ward.
Say you adopted your dog as an adult, and they’re kind of shy. You can still help them socialize and meet potential friends by trying out a variety of dog parks and dog meet-ups and observing the environments when/where they seem to have fun and feel comfortable.
Benoit says that when you do, keep an eye on the other dogs or other dog park regulars who can become territorial or dominant. If that’s the case, it may not be the best space for your dog, and you should try somewhere else.
Benoit also notes that you should never try to force a friendship on your dog. “I allow them to respond to other dogs and reject other dogs,” he says. In fairness, you probably wouldn’t respond well to a friendship your parents tried to force upon you, either.
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Madeleine Aggeler is a freelance journalist and copywriter in Washington, D.C. Previously, she was a writer at New York magazine’s The Cut. She lives with her dog, Cleo, who works primarily as a foot warmer.