Dogs as Children

Study finds similar dynamics in our relationships with dogs and infants
By JoAnna Lou, July 2013

Many people, myself included, consider our dogs to be children. We feed them the best food, take them to (obedience) school, and even bring them with us on vacation. I often get a lot of slack for treating my pups like kids, but a new study seems to back up the relationship that we have. Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna set out to explore the bond between dogs and their human "parents." Interestingly, and perhaps no surprise to us dog lovers, they found striking similarities to human parent-child relationships.

There's a term called the "secure base effect" which is used to describe infants using their caregivers as a sort of "safety net" when interacting with the environment. The researchers wanted to see if this behavior was present between people and their pets.  
The lead scientist, Lisa Horn, set up a situation where dogs could earn a food reward by playing with an interactive toy. She watched for their reaction under three different conditions: "absent owner," "silent owner," and "encouraging owner." Lisa's team found that the dogs were much less likely to work for the food when their person wasn't present. Staying silent or encouraging the pups had little influence on the animals' motivation level.
The really interesting part came in the follow-up experiment where researchers put the dogs in a room with a stranger. They found that the dogs' motivation to play with the toy did not change whether the stranger was in the room or not. Since the increased interaction only occurred when their "human parent" was present, the scientists concluded that this was key in getting the dogs to behave in a confident manner.
This study is the first to find the "secure base effect" in dog-caregiver relationships. To build on this research, Lisa's team plans to do direct comparative studies on dogs and children next--very cool!

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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