Personally, I think that there’s nothing better than seeing a cute video or story about animal best friends, but there’s a special place in my heart for dogs that form friendships with animals of a different species.
If these types of relationships are as common as the Internet leads us to believe, why is it that some dogs get along so well with other species of animals?
Based on current research, there seems to be three main reasons why some dogs are able to form these wonderful interspecies friendships. Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus and adjunct professor at Bergin University of Canine Studies, believes that this behavior is the by-product of traits we have selectively bred into domestic dogs.
Humans have historically bred dogs to produce offspring that are extremely sociable and accepting. While this level of sociability and acceptance varies from breed to breed, the fact remains that we have created a species of canine companions that are as eager to give love as receive it.
Dogs’ personalities aren’t the only thing that selective breeding has changed, though. Many of today’s most popular breeds display something the scientific community calls neotony, or the retention of juvenile characteristics that persist into adulthood. In simpler terms, this means many dog’s today have been bred so that they are effectively puppies for their entire lives.
Breeds that are highly neotonized display the characteristics of floppy ears, large round eyes, and shorter snouts. Not only are these features adorable, dogs that have them are more likely to be friendly towards other animals. In other words, if you want your dog to develop an interspecies best friendship you better hope they belong to a neotonized breed.
What about dogs who don’t display these neotonized characteristics? Are they destined to have single-species friendships for the rest of their lives? Not necessarily. This leads us to the second main reason why interspecies friendships develop.
Dog breeds that fall into the category of less neotonized have more traditionally “wild” characteristics: upright ears, long snouts, and powerful prey drives. Dogs that fit this description are perfectly friendly, but do not have the same propensity to develop interspecies friendships that their neotonized peers do. However, there is one exception to this rule.
According to Dr. Coren, interspecies friendships can develop with less neotonized dogs and very young animals. The reason for this is that all young mammals have pheromones that give them a distinctive “baby smell” that engages protective instincts in older animals. The great thing about these pheromones is that they smell similar between species so an interspecies response is more likely. When this happens, the young mammal is protected long enough to form a true bond with the dog. This is why some dogs so willingly nurse or nurture orphaned animals of different species; the newborn presence provokes strong parental feelings.
The third, and possibly most obvious, reason why some dogs are able to form interspecies friendships is that they were raised with them from a young age. With animals, it seems that the strongest bonds form early in their lives. If animals of different species are together from birth or shortly after, their relationship will take root at the earliest stage of their social development. When this happens, it can overrule instinctual or later-learned behaviour that might normally change the relationship between the two animals.
The more we learn about interspecies friendships, the more extraordinary they really are. I’m pretty sure there is a lesson to be learned from our four legged friends as they so freely embrace these unexpected friendships.