Dogs & People:  Are Dogs Our ‘Kids’?

By Shlomo Maital   


   Many many people are exceedingly fond of their pet dogs;  we are, too, very fond of Pixie, our 9-year-old mixed-breed Yorkie.  Now comes research from Austria and Israel, about the depth of our attachment.

    Turns out —  dogs have mirror neurons.  But — what are they?

A mirror neuron is a neuron (in the brain)  that fires both when an animal or a person acts and when the animal or person  observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in human and primate species, and birds. 

Mirror neurons are the key to empathy:  Understanding, sensing, feeling what others feel, with accuracy.  They are the key to human relationships. And, it emerges, to human-dog  or human-pet relations (even, human-python??).

 Research described in today’s daily Haaretz by Haifa University Prof. Anna Zamansky, together with colleagues at U. of Vienna and U. of Vienna Medical School, verifies that dogs’ mirror neutrons in their brains ‘fire’ when they are attached to their owners.   Dogs’ affection, that you can read in their eyes,  is reciprocated among their owners’ mirror neutrons…and the bond becomes incredibly deep. U. of Vienna is one of the few places where researchers have found how to use fMRI functional MRI brain imaging to study dogs’ brains.

  Ever looked into your dog’s eyes?  Can you read the love and affection that resides there?  And it is unconditional —  even among dogs owned by owners who are often not very considerate, who even forget food and water.  The researchers find that in some ways, the mirror-neuron process between dog and human is not unlike that between parents and their children. And I believe this is true.

  Probably, dogs became domesticated, in part because of those mirror neutrons.  Other research shows that early humans, tens of thousands of years ago, may have shared scraps of food with wolves… and the wolves kind of hung around, became domesticated and ..the rest is history.  Alaskan huskies look very much like wolves.  Yorkies don’t – but our little Yorkie still has wolf genes – she will take her biscuit treat, and race off to a corner, to protect it and consume it safely,  she will do many clockwise and counter-clockwise circles before settling down to sleep in her bed (or, I admit, on ours), and she fiercely protects her owners and their house, barking when there are intruders, including ones we ourselves do not hear. 

   Thank goodness for mirror neurons in animals.  It may help us humans to be more considerate of other living creatures on our planet.  And thank goodness Champ and Major, the Bidens’ German shepherds, have brought dogs back into the dogless White House.  How in the world can you trust a President, who does not have a dog?