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Researchers Believe Dogs See Us As Family

Researchers make a discover that lesbians already knew.


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Sassafras Lowrey

There is an old bumper sticker/T-shirt saying, “Dogs aren’t our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” I think about that line from time to time although I no longer have a T-shirt proudly proclaiming it. Especially this time of year, around the holidays I often stop to think about how, for so many of us, dogs are our whole lives, or at the very least our whole families, and how wonderful that is!

This time of year it seems like everywhere you turn, from radio advertisements to grocery store displays, we are reminded that the holidays are upon us, and that they are a time we should be spending with our families—and by family, they seem to almost always be insinuating the folks who raised us. For lots of lesbians, those birth family relationships are strained at best, and frequently completely disconnected. The first few years after I ran away from home as a queer teenager the holidays made me sad. I didn’t feel like I knew how to celebrate with all the family traditions stripped away, but then I learned how to start building my own family, which from the very beginning has included dogs!

Thinking about the role my canine family members play in my holiday celebrations, it felt like perfect timing that I just learned of a new study conducted at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest have been using MRI imaging to look at the way dog's brains process information! The study was so cool I knew I wanted to share it with you.  This study primarily explored how dogs understand the people they live with, and found that they see us as far more than just treat and toy dispensers. Scientists found that our dogs actually see us as family.

In the study, researchers trained dogs who participated in the study to lie still on MRI machines (so cute and clever!) and then used the MRI to measure the way that dogs’ brains responded when they were presented with the sounds of familiar and unknown people, and of other dogs. They used a variety of different sounds ranging from voices to grunts and sighs. This study was the first time that scientists have been able to analyse dog brainwaves and get a real picture of how they process information, especially how they understand their owners. 

The researchers were able to get a really clear picture of how the dogs we share our homes with understand themselves in relationship to us. They found that the auditory cortex of the dog’s brain "lit-up" when exposed to happy human noises from people they know. This brain activity showed remarkable similarities between the way that dogs and human brains process emotionally charged information, such as happy news from someone you love. The result of just how connected to humans dogs are was surprising to scientists. They found that dogs relate to us in ways that are comparable to that of human babies. Young human children turn to their parents for comfort and support when they are hurt or afraid, and dogs do the same thing! This behavior is unique to human children and dogs, as apposed to other domestic pets that tend to run when they are in pain or are frightened. Further behavioural backing of this study includes that dogs are the only non-primates who look human companions in the eye. While dogs see us as their family, I’m pretty sure that cats see us as their servants!

I'm a total dog nerd and so I really enjoy reading about the work being done to help humans gain a better understanding of how dogs relate to the world around us. That said, the study didn’t really tell me, or any lesbian, much of anything that we didn’t already know from sharing our lives with dogs.

I think that queer folks are, in many ways, uniquely positioned to understand the relationships between dogs and humans (and other animals too of course). After all, for so many of us, our pets aren’t just like our family, they are our family. 

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