Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Do Nice Dogs Live Longer?

I've just read an article in Smart Planet Daily about a baboon researcher named Susan Cheney and her husband, Robert Seyfarth. Over 20 years of research they have found considerable evidence that "nice" female baboons are more successful and live longer, healthier lives than those who are antisocial.

Their study was limited to relationships of female baboons with other females. They now plan to extend the research to include relationships among males and among males and females. They think their conclusions probably apply to humans (and to many other social animals) as well as to baboons.

It should also apply to dogs and their kin, and in the case of wolves and other wild canids, the research should be fairly straightforward, but what about domestic dogs, for whom their closest bond is in most cases with members of another species--us?

I'm guessing (pretty sure, actually) that dogs who have a warm and close relationship with their humans do much better than those who don't. Does it also matter whether or not they have close social relationhips with other dogs?

I'm sure that they do form such relationships, especially (maybe) if circumstances allow them to choose their own friends. When I was a child, living in Greeley, Colorado, my first dog, Tramp, had a dog friend who lived nearby and used to come over to our house to play with him. There were no leash laws in those days. Dogs used to run free all over our neighborhood, and I can remember being frightened on my way to school if a dog fight was going on nearby.

When I was 6, Tramp got killed by a motorcycle he was chasing. For several months afterward, his friend would come to our house every day, whining and whimpering at the door.

Another time that I saw dogs making friends on their own was when Rob and I and the three dogs we owned at the time drove to Sisters, Oregon, to stay for a couple of nights in a house we had just bought there before we rented it out. The house was on a 2 1/2 acre lot with no fences. Within 20 minutes of our arrival, 6 or 7 dogs arrived and began racing around the property with our 3 dogs, all having a wonderful time. Faun, who was the oldest of the 3 dogs, was so stiff she couldn't walk the next morning. Since we didn't stay long, the dog friendships had no time to develop--but in retrospect, I would love to know what would have happened if we had stayed in an environment where the dogs could interact freely.

The research on free-roaming, non-feral, dogs is probably impossible to do now, at least here. The last time I actually saw dogs regularly running free was in the mid-1960's when my family had recently moved from Colorado to La Mesa. Lake Murray Blvd. was a 2 lane winding road, and the wild country around the lake was much larger and less accessible than now. I would often see a pack of 3, probably feral, dogs hunting jack-rabbits around the lake.

Most domesticated dogs these days are taken to dog parks or play dates to make friends with their own kind. For Caitlin at least, the dog park is one of the most important things in her life. She is highly social with other dogs, and, I think, much happier than she would be if she had no canine companionship. I'm of the opinion that all dogs need the companionship of other dogs, preferably other compatible dogs. Are dogs who are more social happier? healthier? Do they live longer? Impossible to answer for sure.

Another question that Cheney & Seyfarth's research raises for me is whether the socializing as an end in itself (like partying) has the same beneficial effects as more purposeful socializing. Wolves and lions work together to hunt and rear young. Herding dogs work together to manage the flock. In most animals, socialization during play is preparation for their adult jobs. For most domestic dogs, socialization has no purpose other than play for the life of the dog.  Does that kind of socialization have the same beneficial effects for the dog as more purposeful interactions? Does anyone know? Is there any evidence one way or another?