Scientist Say It's Okay to Think of Your Puppy as Your Baby

A study found that a dog's bond to its owner is just like a child's connection to his or her parent

Dogs may bond as tightly with their owners as young children do with their parents, a new Austrian study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna wanted to explore a human bonding behavior called the "secure base effect," to see if a similar behavior existed between dogs and their owners.

"A secure base is the consistent, reliable and dependable ground that the primary caretaker provides for the infant so that he or she [can] move away and explore, knowing that the parent will stay there when the child returns," explained Dr. Joanne Sotelo, division director of psychiatry at Scott & White Healthcare in Round Rock, Texas. Sotelo was not involved in the study.

According to the study authors, who published their findings online in the scientific journal PLOS One, dogs and humans have hung tight for the last 15,000 years, and domesticated pups are so well-adapted at this point that many a dog's main social companion is his owner.

For their study, the researchers recruited 20 adult dogs and their owners from the Clever Dog Lab of the Messerli Research Institute and the Family Dog Research Programme at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary. Fourteen of the dogs were purebred, and six were mixed-breeds (the dog owners were provided with study details ahead of time and given the option to leave the study at any time).

Three different scenarios were set up to help the researchers observe dog-human behaviors: "absent owner"; "silent owner" (owner was present, but quiet and wore an eye covering); and "encouraging owner." In each setting, the dogs could earn a food reward by playing with dog toys.

The study authors reported that the animals were much less likely to work for food when their human companions were not present.

When an owner was in the room, it did not seem to make a difference whether he encouraged the dog or not; the animal's level of motivation was the same. When a stranger replaced the owner, the dogs barely interacted with the human, the researchers noted.

"The key finding of this study is that the mere presence of the caregiver can provide security for the dog. This security depends on the relationship that the dog has with the person. This we can see in the fact that replacing the owner with an unfamiliar person does not increase the dog's sense of security much," said lead researcher Lisa Horn, a postdoctoral fellow at Vetmeduni's Messerli Research Institute.

"We were mainly surprised by the fact that the owner's encouragement did not increase the dog's motivation to manipulate the interactive toys much compared to when the owner was completely silent," Horn added. "In my opinion, this is a strong indication that the dogs' motivation in our task was intrinsic and depended on their sense of security, not on whether they were "told" to do the task."

The finding provides evidence for a secure base effect in dogs that mirrors the bond found in infant-caregiver relationships, they explained.

One expert offered a caveat.

It's possible the dogs were less hungry when their owners were not there, noted Dr. Katherine Houpt, professor emeritus of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Certainly dogs are attached to us. They may be upset when their owners are away even if they don't show behaviors like trash tearing," she said. "Their performance showed that they did better when the owner was there and it didn't seem to make a difference if the owner was encouraging them or not. As long as the owner was there, they would try as hard as they were going to try," Houpt added.

Horn concluded in a statement that the authors aim to continue their research by directly comparing behaviors in dogs and children.

"One of the things that really surprised us is that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do. It will be really interesting to try to find out how this behavior evolved in the dogs with direct comparisons [children]," Horn said.

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