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What Is Loyalty?
What Are the Most Loyal Dog Breeds?
Activities to Improve Loyalty
Few relationships in life are as true and uncomplicated as the ones we experience with our furry friends. But why are dogs so loyal to humans, and how much do nature and nurture influence their behavior?
"We often think of dogs as being loyal, but loyalty is a human concept. We don't yet understand enough about how dogs think to know whether loyalty as such means anything to them," says Irith Bloom, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, owner of The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles, and member of the Daily Paws board of advisors. "It helps to turn the question around and ask ourselves, 'What do dogs do that make us think they are loyal?' Once we know the answer to that, we can think critically about the 'loyal' things dogs do, and figure out what might motivate dogs to do those things."
Let's take a closer look at dogs' loyalty—or at least, the ways they act that imply such allegiance.
What Makes a Loyal Dog?
Archaeologists believe that dogs and humans first developed a symbiotic bond more than 23,000 years ago. Studies suggest that as wild dogs found primitive humans' warm fires and table scraps comforting, people elevated canines' status to companions with valuable hunting skills. Over time, they became an integral part of human evolution and fulfill many needs, from large dogs leading the charge in war to fluffy lap lovers guarding ancient temples.
Bloom says most dog behavior can be analyzed in fairly straightforward terms: They tend to repeat behavior that gets good results and avoid repeating behavior that gets unpleasant results.
"In my opinion, loyal behaviors in dogs are probably not motivated by the same things that motivate loyalty among people, but there isn't enough research on this topic yet to say for sure," she adds. Here are some of the ways Bloom says humans tend to perceive dog loyalty.
Preferring one person over another
"This could be motivated by love, which is an emotion research suggests mammals such as dogs can experience," Bloom says. Also, if we're honest, doggos also gravitate to the person who offers more treats, trots them out for walks, and plays with them a lot, too.
"In fact, playing with your dog and doing fun training games is a great way to strengthen your bond," she adds. "While I don't have data to back this up, I think the bond between us and our dogs is a bond of love, or at least liking. No loyalty required!"
Responding appropriately to cues
Whoever does the most training with the four-pawed household member will certainly have their attention more often than not. The reason? Dogs understand that responding to cues and commands either leads to good stuff or prevents bad stuff. Bloom says loyalty doesn't exactly have a role in this behavior.
Barking when a stranger or another dog approaches
Some people think a dog is loyal when they act in a way that seems like they're protecting their humans and family, like barking or lunging at other dogs and people. However, that's not the case.
"Research suggests that the relationship between people and their dogs is similar to that between parents and young children. That implies that it's not a good idea to expect things in dogs that we wouldn't look for in a young child," Bloom says. "Would we say a person's 3-year-old child is being loyal if they scream when a stranger approaches?"
So if a dog owner views any of the above behaviors as a show of loyalty, then dogs can be loyal, Bloom says, "but the dogs probably don't think of it that way."
Wait, Isn't Dog Loyalty Part of a Pack Mentality?
Not really, although that was the common belief for many years. Bloom explains that the original researcher who came up with the term "alpha wolf," David Mech, "has been trying to remove the term from our lexicon for decades. He realized too late that the research that inspired that term, which studied captive wolves from different families, was flawed."
Wolf pack leaders are actually the mother and father of a family group that makes up a pack. There isn't a hierarchy that requires offspring to display loyalty—the pups listen to the wolf parents much like children listen to their human parents. The cycle repeats when wolf pups leave their natal pack and start families of their own.
Bloom adds that more domesticated dogs don't live in packs or have a pack leader. "Research suggests that free-roaming dogs spend a lot of time alone. Even when they do form groups, those groups are usually fluid, with the exception of mating pairs (where sometimes the male will stay close to the female and the pups)," she says. "Most importantly, while dogs can learn from each other's behavior, and sometimes have doggy friends they would happily follow anywhere, there's no evidence that one dog views another dog as a leader."
So as their human companions, we're not the "alpha" or leader. Instead, pups consider us to be their family group or pack, and they trust us to provide for them and come to their aid. Some studies also show that they develop empathy for us and can pick up on how we feel and adapt behavior accordingly. These qualities foster a sense of belonging and, if we want to reframe it as such, could perhaps be additional reasons why dogs are so loyal.
What Are the Most Loyal Dog Breeds?
While there are certainly some dog breeds who display more loyal tendencies (based on our perceptions), researchers are eager to point out that behaviors aren't only determined by breed.
"Every dog is an individual. Picking a canine companion by breed to get loyalty (or some other quality) will only get you so far," Bloom says. "I've met couch potato border collies and unfriendly Labrador retrievers. It's important to meet dogs where you find them, rather than making assumptions based on their breed."
So once again, the characteristics that define loyalty to you might be projected onto your pup. For example, Bloom notes that if you define loyalty as responding well to people's signals and seeking interaction, herding dogs might be considered the most loyal dog breeds. On the other hand, if a loyal dog to you is a pooch who favors one person, certain Asian dog breeds might fit this description.
How to Improve a Dog's Loyalty
Some dogs are more loyal than others because they're fully integrated into their humans' activities. If you love the great outdoors and choose an active dog who enjoys hiking and kayaking, you'll have a companion for life! Certain dogs perfect for seniors and retirees fulfill this role well because they're a little more laid-back but follow their owners everywhere.
However, every dog, regardless of breed, responds to bonding activities with their favorite humans with a foundation of kindness and respect.
"Dogs have their own emotions, needs, and wants. The more we show our dogs that we respect their opinions, the more comfortable and happy they become around us," Bloom says. "A strong bond with a dog is a gift unlike any other. It's worth cultivating!"
Here are some of her practical ideas for strengthening your bond:
Travel with your dog in pursuit of new experiences, such as road trips to the beach, visits to dog-friendly wineries and restaurants, and treks through national parks. Make sure to also pack the proper adventure gear.
Come up with fun rituals you and your dog can do together. "Howling along with sirens, anyone?" Bloom says. Also try engaging indoor games or something more sporty, such as flyball or an agility course.
"Most importantly, listen when your dog signals discomfort and give them the space they need to get comfortable," she says. "Three common signs that a dog is uncomfortable or needs more space include lip-licking, yawning, and looking away."