Do you conform? You too? Me too! We all do but some are better at the game than others...
Clans, troops, herds, packs, pods, flocks... Many of us are social creatures. We want company. Sure, sometimes we can't wait to get away from everybody and enjoy our solitude but mostly we get lonely when we are alone too long.
The urge to be accepted and belong to a group is innate in social animals. We seek to fit in with our own kind. In herds, flocks, pods, packs, we learn the norms and ways of our kind. We seek advancement in social status by emulating those that have it. This is called social learning.
Primatologist Frans de Waal found that chimps were much more likely to copy a chimp of higher status than one of lower rank. We copy movie stars by buying the products they promote. It's like we all want to ensure our security in the group by fitting in the best we can. This is conformity and we get good at it through social learning and imitation.
Sometimes a social, solitary animal will have no other option to quench his urge for company than to join a group that is not of his kind. The closer the kind the better the bind it seems. Cows have joined horses. Moose have joined cows. I've seen a domestic duck or two mixed in with wild ones, ducks with geese, geese with ducks.
In the winter of 2013 a young red deer in Suffolk, England, joined a herd of 100 sheep on Dunwich Heath (see video). Having lost his herd, he stayed with them until they were moved to their summer pasture. The shepherd said that the young deer fit right in. The sheep were friendly to him but his rank among them was at or near the bottom. He was not included by the shepherd when the sheep were moved to their summer pasture.
My friend Bernie has a mule named Polly. Together they have traveled across the United States and many more miles on top of that. Bernie says that when Polly has run off, she is usually found standing with any other large four legged herbivores she can find. He's found her with horses, ponies, other mules and once, a 4-H steer. It's not that Bernie is bad company. In fact, Polly really likes him and follows him. It's just that she has more in common with the other four leggers. She can share thoughts with them that Bernie won't understand like, “Aren't you finding this grass a bit dry and dusty? Me too!”
When I was young, I had a goat, a donkey and a dog. Because they were each the only one of their kind around, they bonded with each other. They formed a small roaming band. They looked like a Hollywood, slightly altered, version of the Bremen Town Musicians (cat replaced by goat and rooster missing) as they traveled all over together.
Sure, it's pretty clear why a goat would hang out with a donkey. You can see the herbivores hanging out together. But why would a carnivore join them other than to eat them?
Turns out dogs may be even better than people at social learning and bonding with other species. Dogs are not only man's best friend. Sheep, elephants, orangutans, kangaroos, cats, deer, antelopes, pigs, horses, donkeys, goats, foxes and many other animals have claimed close friendships with them.
Dogs are great at conforming. My dog Snookie joins me in howling at our neighbors, taking naps, walking, sunbathing, swimming and rolling on the floor. Ok, so maybe I conform a little, too, but most of the conforming in our group is left up to Snookie.
The dog seems to bond without bounds, perhaps broadly the most social creature of us all. Ruled by conformity, he journeys through life making friends where ever and when ever he can. It's the nature of the beast, known as the dog, to do so. We all seek to conform. It is an instinct sealed into the makeup of all social animals. We all strive for a place in the group, the pack, the herd, the flock, the pod but the dog is the most adept at walking among us. He is the expert conformer unless he's hungry or driven by an even stronger urge than friendship.