Scientists still aren’t sure exactly when domesticated dogs first split off from wild wolves, or even how it happened—did people adopt and tame wolves tens of thousands of years ago? Or did wolves start tagging along with people of their own volition, effectively taming themselves?
Regardless of the cause, though, this much is clear: Just coexisting with dogs isn’t really cutting it for us. (Coexist is kind of a chilly verb for man to apply to its best friend, anyway.) We want to understand dogs the way dogs seem to understand people. They have warm eyes that can bore straight into the soul; we have science.
In the past decade or so, scientists have published hundreds of studies on canine cognition and behavior. Among other things, these studies suggest that dogs are better at reading human social cues than many primates, and that they’re the only animals other than humans who have shown the ability to make certain types of inferences.
The appeal of these findings is pretty straightforward—there’s satisfaction in discovering what you have in common with something you love. (There’s also satisfaction in creating those commonalities, which is why some people dress up their dogs like four-legged humans, or treat them like children, or want to believe that their pets grow to look like them). But labs can only hold so many dogs and only run so many tests at one time, and most of these studies use a small number of dogs to draw species-wide conclusions. And so, some scientists are starting to wonder if dog owners can be used to conduct research.