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Dog-owner relationship strikingly similar to parent-child bond

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Owner-dog relationships share striking similarities to parent-child ones

The relationship between dogs and their owners is strikingly similar to the parent-child relationship in humans, according to a new study published in PLoS One. The study found dogs, like humans, have an innate need to establish close relationships with other people, which may explain why some owners refer to their dogs as their little babies.


Pet dogs have been closely associated with people for around 15,000 years, according to the researchers who investigated the bond between dogs and their owners.

"The animals are so well adapted to living with human beings that in many cases the owner replaces conspecifics and assumes the role of the dog's main social partner," they said.

The study found that dogs and children seem to share what is known as the "secure base effect", which is seen in parent-child bonding, as well as the bond between humans and dogs.

This effect is readily seen in human babies: When the infants interact with the environment, they use their caregivers as a “secure base”.

However, this effect had not yet been closely observed in dogs until Lisa Horn at the Vetmeduni's Messerli Research Institute in Austria and her research team conducted an experiment to dig deeper into the behavior of dogs and their owners.

In the experiment, the dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys. The researchers then analyzed the reactions of the dogs under three different conditions: 1) “absent owner”; 2) “silent owner”; and 3) “encouraging owner”.

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Surprisingly, the dogs were a lot less eager to work for food when their owners were not there than when they were.

It also didn’t matter whether the owners additionally encouraged their dogs during the task or remained silent because both had little influence on the pets' level of motivation.

Next, Horn and her team conducted a follow-up experiment where they replaced the dogs' owners with strangers.

Results from the follow-up experiment revealed that the when strangers were present, the dogs barely interacted with them and did not try as hard to get the food reward as they did when the unfamiliar strangers were not present.

Because the dogs were much more motivated to get the food reward when their owner was there, the researchers concluded that the owner’s presence is critical for a pet to act in a confident manner.

"The study provides the first evidence for the similarity between the "secure base effect" found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships. This striking parallel will be further investigated in direct comparative studies on dogs and children," Horn and her team reported.

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

SOURCE: PLoS One, "The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task" Lisa Horn, Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range (PLoS One 2013); doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065296