I attended a great online interactive workshop recently focusing on becoming better at communicating and connecting with clients (thanks to https://www.alldogsaregood.com). We talked about the need for a strong support network of our own and since then the phrase ‘finding your tribe’ has been on my mind.
It has its roots in a concept about the natural size of a social group
‘The psychological demands of living in large groups mean that, in primates, species-typical group size correlates rather closely with the species’ brain size. On the primate model, our oversized brain would predict a group size of around 150, the number now known as Dunbar’s Number. We find it in the typical community size of hunter-gatherer societies, in the average village size in county after county in the Domesday book, as well as in 18th-century England….. It is also the average personal network size – the number of people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).’
There are degrees of closeness within that group size,
1. The 5 or 6 people who are our closest connections. These are the people we speak to with the most frequency and are able to maintain the most intimate relationships with, commonly those will be close family members or people we have a deep shared history with.
2. There are work friends, given the length of the average working day this can account for quite a sizeable amount of shared experience but they might not all be people we would choose to spend so much time with. We have facebook friends, pub friends, hobby friends, club friends, school friends and there are degrees of closeness with all of the people in those groups.
3. These are people like our neighbours, the fellow commutors, the shop keepers, the bus drivers, the milkman, postie etc, people we know by sight and to exchange polite greetings with.
With recent advances in technology, we have an unparalleled ability to connect with other peoples lives and yet polls and studies seem to suggest that people living in developed countries increasingly report feeling lonely and isolated. The first thing we need to be aware of is that social pain is real pain, the same regions of the brain that are activated in response to physical pain and damage are activated when we fear that our place in our socal group is under threat. Feeling disconnected, rejected or unwanted are all as painful to experience as a physical injury.
Social pain is a basic emotional response which tells us that our connections to others are weakening or have been lost or damaged. This motivates the repair and maintenance of those connections.
We are social creatures for a reason, it was this set of cooperative behaviours that allowed us to survive, thrive and pass on this genetic information. These traits are reinforced heavily from our birth as weak and helpless infants receiving round the clock attention, physical contact and nurturing. Mortality rates go up as maternal and social care go down whether we are a rat, a dog, a cappuchin or a human. Leaving a baby to cry alone in a crib or leaving a puppy to whine alone in a crate causes long term and permanant changes to their brain structure and chemistry, it affects their ability to feel safe and secure for the rest of their lives. This damage also changes the infants understanding of how to form and maintain secure relationships.
With this in mind it makes sense as to why the relationship between people and their dogs has also changed notibly over the recent past. A study conducted by Link last year asked several questions about peoples relationships with their dogs.
81% said they talked to their dog like they were a friend.
73% told their dog things they wouldn’t say to anyone else.
90% said they felt safer with their dog nearby.
78% said they make life decisions based on their pet. More than 50% would avoid social occasions in order to be with their dog
75% reported they did not like to be away from their dog at all.
Studies done in the 80s and 90s proved that brief social connections (smiling, eye contact, verbal greeting) between strangers were much more likely to happen if one party was accompanied by a domestic dog, a further study showed that people were much more likely to agree to help a stranger if the stranger was accompanied by a dog. Researchers polled 2,700 men and women in four different cities, Perth, San Diego, Portland, and Nashville and found that pet owners were 60% more likely to get to know new people in their neighbourhood. Fellow pet owners were more likely to meet up and interact on a regular basis, some of these relationships remained aquaintances, while others developed into deeper friendships and even relationships.
So its easy to see why this relationship works well for the human but what about for the dogs?
I know that dogs have an unusual ability to bond with us but I think they get more than enough of that in most situations so for now I’m just focusing on their relationships with other dogs.
Right from the start we are altering the development of the dogs ability to be a happy, secure, social being. In a natural setting the weaning period is between 7-13 weeks during which there is a gradual decrease in the time that the mother will settle and let the pups suckle, at the same time there is an increase in bringing food back to the puppies which allows for the transition from milk to solids and also develops their social skills with competing siblings. They are becoming familiar with the scents of the immediate environment as they are brought back with returning adults. Around 4 months they begin to move and explore the world in more detail but recieve protection from a familiar adult care giver. Dispersal from the family group begins after this period, around 5-6 months however many do not disperse until 12+ months and some remain with their family group after this time. Meeting unfamiliar dogs is mostly a process, there are scent introductions, visual, auditory information all taking place before they get in each others physical space.
Human practice is to remove mum from the pups as early as 4-5 weeks either for part of the day or entirely to force weaning. Removed from their family group at 7-10 weeks of age, often taken into a new home with no familiar sensory elements. Often with no resident dog. Use of confinement is common. Minimal contact with other dogs until the vaccination period is up. Then when the time comes to go out into the big wide world we take them out and they meet strange dogs, over and over again.
Its a testiment to dogs as a species that any of them survive this process not totally disfunctional
This brings me back to the idea of Finding Your Tribe. Its an idea that I think would benefit the dogs who share our lives. We interrupt the process which they would learn about safety, communication and social skills so it is up to us to make sure they still get those opportunities. Back at the begining I talked about the different levels of social contact and this is relevant in our dogs lives too.
1. The closest friends. I think dogs should have a core group of dog friends. It might be just one or two, it might be ten or twelve but dogs should be given the opportunity to build long term relationships with other dogs who they feel completely safe and comfortable with. For puppies and young dogs its so beneficial to spend quality time with well rounded adult dogs. Social learning is an important way that dogs learn about the world and how to react to it so give them a good teacher to learn from.
2. The play friends. Social skills, create opportunities for social activities with other dogs which aren’t just manic running and aroused rough and tumble games. Sniffy walks, treat searches, interesting environments, practicing their communication and their social skills. Spending time with each other doesnt have to be energetic or overtly playful, it can just be sharing the same space.
3. The pass on by friends. Teaching them how to deal with this is potentially one of the most important life skills both for us and them. How to pass other dogs and humans politely, the equivelent of a nod, smile and ‘good morning’. Humans tend to walk in straight lines, social dogs walk in curves, circles, turn aways and sniffs. If we mimic what social dogs do when we have our dogs on leash, we create the model that they will find most comfortable. (Link to Turid’s wonderful book at the bottom)
(2008) Domestic Dogs as Facilitators in Social Interaction: An Evaluation of Helping and Courtship Behaviors, Anthrozoös, 21:4, 339-349
Why rejection hurts