Through the Covid-19 lockdowns, pet ownership has been increasing globally. The pandemic has exacerbated many underlying social issues, including the loneliness epidemic. Many turned to pets for companionship in the experience of isolation and loneliness. In a pre-Covid study, one out of five Americans feels lonely “frequently or constantly“. Social media, and other factors are impacting the quality of social connection. Covid-19 bought these issues into sharper focus. Man’s best friend is being used to address loneliness and wellbeing needs.

Man's best friend during Covid

Snapshot of Pet ownership in the Covid era

It is not surprising that pets have become a significant part of people’s lives during the Covid era. In fact, 70% of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 90.5 million households. In 2021, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) expects to record a new sales benchmark, with pet-related sales exceeding $123 billion. They estimate that growth would continue in 2022 with a forecast of 13.5% growth year-over-year.


Additionally, they report that millennials and Generation Z are spending more on their pets than have before. Furthermore, there has also been an increase in pet ownership in other countries, including the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Dogs have been popular for millenia

What do we know about man’s best friend? The dog-human relationships are amongst our earliest and most enduring . Dogs are the most common terrestrial carnivores and found on every continent; as well as in space. Yet, only a minority of dogs alive are pets. Globally, more than 70% of the dog population (estimated at > 700 million to ~ 1 billion) comprises of free-ranging dogs. So, only 30% of dogs alive are one of ‘human’s best friends’. Dogs have changed a great deal in appearance over the last two hundred years. Making it one of the most physically diverse mammalian species. The first professional canine registries ( late 1800’s) started with fewer than ten dog breeds. Today, there could be anywhere between 199 and 500 different types of dog breeds throughout the world. A diverse selection of designer-type dogs are available in today’s pet market. With the current trend being hyphenated ‘oodle’ breeds, such as the Labradoodle, Goldendoodle, Cockapoo, Maltipoo, Cavapoo, etc.

Generational pet ownership in the USA 2022

Man's best friend: the co-evolution of humanity and dogs.

“Man and dog stand for a harmonious unit between man and animal…”

Man's best friend
Where did this relationship start? The co-evolution of dogs and humans started between as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. The modern dog is a descendent of the grey wolf (canus lupus). It is most likely that separate human populations selectively bred dogs. So, todays dogs to not come from one single source.
Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that humans and dogs evolved in response to one another. Domestic dogs are skilled at reading human social and communicative behaviour, such as dogs recognising a pointing gesture.

‘[dogs] know what the human can and cannot see in various situations. Recent comparisons between canid species suggest that these unusual social skills have a heritable component and initially evolved during domestication as a result of selection on systems mediating fear and aggression towards humans”.

A recent study identified the ability of dogs and humans to read each other’s facial expressions, which is a key component of the human-dog bond. They discovered, through the comparison of the facial muscles of the domestic dog (Canus familiarus) and the wolf (Canus lupus), that the domestication of dogs involved the selective breeding for rapid facial movements like those of humans. Compared to the limited ability of wolves to behave in this way, this was significantly different. So, dogs evolved to being able to respond to human expressions , enhancing their ability to communicate and build relationships with humans.
Emotionally, we bond as we look into each other’s eyes. This process mediated by oxytocin, a hormone released when we look at one another. Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is directly connected with childbirth. Oxytocin is also associated with empathy, trust, and building relationships. According to research evidence, gazing behaviour from dogs increases oxytocin levels in their owners and vice versa. Identifying an interspecies oxytocin-mediated positive feedback loop that can activated through gazing. We don’t get the same ‘hit’ when we look at wolves or vice versa. Dogs appear to have evolved to evoke a similar relationship with us as with children.  Additionally, dogs have been selectively bred to evoke a ‘cute‘ response that amplifies this reaction.
In a different study, an experiment determined that dogs appear to be able to identify emotions and seem to worry about an adult in ‘distress’ experiment. Like to the way that two-year-old children responded to the same experiment. Indicating they either know how to read our emotional states or relate to them in some way. Though, this wouldn’t be a ground-breaking insight to anyone that has had a dog in their life.

Did they evolve for us or vice versa?

The philosopher, Mark Rowlands, believes that the differences between dogs and wolves is explained by their relationship to us. Suggesting that we are part of a dog’s extended mind, and evolved problem solver.

“…the dog has been embedded in a very different environment from the wolf. Therefore, its psychological processes and abilities have developed in very different ways. In particular, the dog has been forced to rely on us. More than that, it has developed to use us to solve its various problems, cognitive and otherwise. For dogs, we are useful information-processing devices. We are part of the dog’s extended mind. When a dog faces a mechanical problem, it find impossible to solve, what does it do? It enlists our help”.

So it might be possible to reframe ‘Man’s best friend’ as a ‘dog’s best friend’.  A balanced friendship is based on mutuality, are we doing enough for them?

Emerging considerations of our relationships with dogs

Evolution of dogs
At a time when we have turned to our ancestral friends for companionship like never before, it’s worth considering for a moment, what is going to impact on dogs over the next few years. If Mark Rowland is correct in his assessment, then what challenges do we need to overcome for them?
1.  The start of this discussion commenced discussing how pets, in particular dogs, have been part of many people’s way of navigating the Covid era. In the UK, households bought 3.2 million pets, with young people being half of the new pet owners. But, as life is normalising, there has been a dramatic increase in dogs being abandoned at rescue centres. This is a similar story in both Australia and in the US.
2.  Pets have a significant carbon footprint and impact on the environment. In the US alone, they consume 19% of the dietary energy that humans do and 33% of the animal-derived energy. As a result, creating about a third as much faeces as Americans and constitute about 25–30% of the environmental impacts from animal production, covering: land use, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and biocides. Industrial meat production is the single biggest cause of global deforestation. These estimations by Gregory Okin don’t account for other impacts of owning a dog, things we share with them that also have an environmental impact. In our anthropomorphism of dogs, we share a love of treats, like to share our fast fashion, and celebrate events with disposable plastic items. Do dogs appreciate St Patrick’s Day coats or a Santa’s hat? I was going to say that at least they don’t share our other vice of alcohol, but…too late. Without wanting to sound preachy, our closeness to dogs and our tendency to anthropomorphise them makes them more mini-me’s than is good for them or the environment.
Dog ownership and cocaine use are both reliable economic indicators. Both reflect economic success and discretionary incomes. So, do Western cultures have a responsibility to set an example? Pet ownership has increased in populous nations, like India and China. It is starting to increase in Russia, Japan, Philippines, Argentina. These growing consumer societies are emulating the WEIRD cultures.

What about the dogs that aren't man's best friend?

Finally, do we have a responsibility for dogs that are not pets? Globally, as many as 700 million dogs are free ranging dogs or ‘strays’. They are the major causes of the spread of rabies, estimated to have contributed to 60,000 human deaths a year. In India, there are reports of epidemic waves of dog attacks and dog bites. In Asia and Africa, they are also major threats to livestock and biodiversity. They may not be someone’s loved one, but they are a direct result of our selective breeding their species. What responsibility to we have to humanities best friend?

"All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn't a dog."

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