Updated 27 June 2013

Pets like 'babies' to some people

Dogs may bond as tightly with their owners as little children do with their parents, a new Austrian study suggests.


Dogs may bond as tightly with their owners as little children do with their parents, a new Austrian study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna wanted to explore a human bonding behaviour called the "secure base effect", to see if a similar behaviour existed between dogs and their owners, said lead researcher Lisa Horn, in a news release. Horn is a postdoctoral fellow at Vetmeduni's Messerli Research Institute.

"A secure base is the consistent, reliable and dependable ground that the primary caretaker provides for the infant so that he or she [can] move away and explore, knowing that the parent will stay there when the child returns," explained Dr Joanne Sotelo, division director of psychiatry at Scott & White Healthcare in Round Rock, Texas. Sotelo was not involved in the study.

According to the study authors, who published their findings online in the scientific journal PLOS One, dogs and humans have hung tight for the last 15 000 years, and domesticated pups are so well-adapted at this point that many a dog's main social companion its his owner.

For their study, the researchers recruited 20 adult dogs and their owners from the Clever Dog Lab of the Messerli Research Institute and the Family Dog Research Programme at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary. Fourteen of the dogs were purebred, and six were mixed-breeds (the dog owners were provided with study details ahead of time and given the option to leave the study at any time).

Dog-human behaviours

Three different scenarios were set up to help the researchers observe dog-human behaviours: "absent owner"; "silent owner" (owner was present, but quiet and wore an eye covering); and "encouraging owner." In each setting, the dogs could earn a food reward by playing with dog toys.

The study authors reported that the animals were much less likely to work for food when their human companions were not present. When an owner was in the room, it did not seem to make a difference whether he encouraged the dog or not; the animal's level of motivation was the same.

When a stranger replaced the owner, the dogs barely interacted with the human, the researchers noted.

"The only factor influencing the dogs' duration of manipulation [of the toy] was the presence of the owner," the authors wrote, theorising that the owner's presence was important for the animal to behave in a confident manner.

The finding provides evidence for a secure base effect in dogs that mirrors the bond found in infant-caregiver relationships, they explained.

One expert offered a caveat.

Comparing dogs and children

It's possible the dogs were less hungry when their owners were not there, noted Dr Katherine Houpt, professor emeritus of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Certainly dogs are attached to us. They may be upset when their owners are away even if they don't show behaviours like trash tearing," she said. "Their performance showed that they did better when the owner was there and it didn't seem to make a difference if the owner was encouraging them or not. As long as the owner was there, they would try as hard as they were going to try," Houpt added.

Horn concluded in a statement that the authors aim to continue their research by directly comparing behaviours in 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 behaviour evolved in the dogs with direct comparisons [to children]," Horn said.

More information

For more on dogs and other pet behaviour, go to the ASPCA.


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