Do Dogs See Us as Masters or Parents?

December 22, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

a jack russell terrier licking the nose of its owner
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We all know people treat their dogs like children, but do dogs think of humans as parents? Scientists believe so.

The 16th century poet John Donne famously wrote the now-common line, “no man is an island,” meaning that people instinctively need relationships and interaction with fellow human beings in order to be happy.

Current research has shown that this idea extends beyond humans and includes other animals, including our domesticated canine friends, who develop a special, child-like bond with their owners, according to scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna).

“One of the things that really surprised us is that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do,” said Lisa Horn from the Vetmeduni Messerli Research Institute.

According to the university, dogs have been closely associated with humans for about 15,000 years. The animals are so well adapted to living with human beings that, in many cases, the owner replaces the need for connection with other dogs and assumes the role of the dog's main social partner. The relationship between pet owners and dogs turns out to be highly similar to the deep connection between young children and their parents.

SEE ALSO: Science Confirms What Pet Owners Already Know: Dogs are Self Aware

One aspect of the bond between humans and dogs is the so-called "secure base effect" also found in parent-child bonding. In essence, human infants use the presence of caregivers as a secure base when it comes to interacting with the environment. The "secure base effect" had not been well examined in dogs until Horn decided to take a closer look at the behaviour of dogs and their owners.

She examined the dogs’ reactions under three different conditions: "absent owner," "silent owner" and "encouraging owner." The dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys. The dogs seemed much less keen on working for food when their caregivers were not there than when they were. Most surprisingly, whether an owner additionally encouraged the dog during the task or remained silent had little influence on the animal's level of motivation.

In a follow-up experiment, Horn and her colleagues replaced the owner with an unfamiliar person. The scientists observed that dogs hardly interacted with the strangers and were not significantly more interested in trying to get the food reward than when this person was absent. The dogs were much more motivated only when their owner was present.

The researchers concluded that the owner's presence is important for the animal to behave in a confident manner.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, provided the first evidence for the similarity between the "secure base effect" found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships. The researchers plan to further investigate the striking parallel between dogs and children through direct comparative studies with a specific focus on tracing the evolution of the behavior in dogs.

Based on material provided by the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.

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