Dogs are somewhat like young human children, study finds

When exploring their environments, dogs treat their owners similar to the way young children treat their parents, new research reveals. 

Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch/AP
A child gleefully pets a springer spaniel named Hector at the Northern Minnesota English Springer Spaniel Club’s Fun Trials Saturday in May 2013.

Treating our dogs like our babies might, it turns out, be somewhat reasonable.

A new study has found that the relationship between dogs and their owners is similar in character to that between parents and their babies.

In human parent-child bonding, infants perceive their caregivers as a “secure base” as they begin to explore the world, tentatively reaching out into the unfamiliar with the confidence that someone known is observing their mini-adventure and is waiting to fold them back into what is safe and secure. Now, a study published in PLOS ONE has tested the confidence-levels of dogs with and without their owners and found that the same “secure base effect” is also found in owner-dog bonding.

To note differences in dog behavior with and without their owners, Lisa Horn and colleagues from the Vetmeduni's Messerli Research Institute studied the behavior of dogs under three different conditions: "absent owner," "silent owner," and "encouraging owner.” In each of the situations, the dog could earn a food reward by interacting with dog toys.

When the owner was present, the dog tended to pursue the food reward, confidently addressing the dog toy challenges. Whether or not the owner was vocal didn’t affect the dog’s behavior; the owner’s presence was alone was enough to encourage the animal’s ambitions.

In the “absent owner” part of the experiment, the researchers replaced the animals’ caregiver with a stranger to the dog. In that experiment, the dogs largely declined to interact with the strangers and expressed limited interest in achieving the food reward. The scientists proposed that in that situation, the dog lacks the security it needed to bravely face the world and tackle the food reward tasks.

Scientists have proposed that dog might have been our first domesticated animal, sharing a common ancestor with the grey wolf some 15,000 years ago. Vaguely a child-equivalent in some homes, the dog – with its muscled-face that registers emotions we can translate into our own language – has accumulated a number of scientific studies and inherited lore that suggest it can make moral-like decisions.

Two years ago, researchers found that dogs learn from their owner’s facial cues to perform good behavior when their owner is watching and to save the misbehavior until their owner’s back is turned, like a wised-up child pilfering from the cookie jar.

No word from the pro-cat camp on how this might tilt the cat-dog debate.

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