Dogs See Their Owners As A Parent
June 22, 2013

Dog-Owner Bonds Similar In Nature To Parent-Child Relationships

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend,” but new research appearing in the journal PLOS One suggests the relationship between a canine and his primary caretaker is actually closer in nature to the bond between young children and their parents.

Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) report human infants look upon their primary caregivers as a secure base when it comes to interacting with the environment.

Lisa Horn of Vetmeduni’s Messerli Research Institute and her colleagues set out to determine whether or not this so-called “secure base effect” also existed in the human-dog relationship.

Horn examined the behavior of dogs under three different conditions: absent owner, silent owner and encouraging owner. The dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys, but the researchers said they seemed far less interested in working to earn their treats when their caretakers were not there.

In addition, the study authors reported that whether or not the owner actively encouraged the dog or remained silent during the process had little effect on the animal’s motivational levels.

The researchers then conducted a follow-up experiment in which the dog’s caregiver was replaced by an unfamiliar individual. Horn and her associates found the canines barely interacted with the strangers, and were not noticeably more interested in attempting to earn their food reward when the stranger was present.

The dogs were only motivated by the presence of their owner, and the study authors concluded the primary caretaker’s presence was required for the dogs to behave confidently in the trial.

“The study provides the first evidence for the similarity between the ‘secure base effect’ found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships,” the university said. “This striking parallel will be further investigated in direct comparative studies on 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,” added Horn, who wrote the study along with Ludwig Huber and Friederike Range of Vetmeduni Vienna.

The study was supported by grants from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Vienna and the Austrian Science Fund. The dogs used in the study came from the Clever Dog Lab of the Messerli Research Institute and the Family Dog Project at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.