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Adult Dogs Behave Like Human Children, Study

Update Date: Jun 21, 2013 02:15 PM EDT
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A new study reveals that the relationships between pet owners and dogs are strikingly similar to parent-child relationships in humans.

Dogs have been pets for about 15,000 years.  In fact, domesticated dogs are so well adapted to living with humans that in many cases the owner replaces conspecifics, or other dogs, and assumes the role of the dog's main social partner.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, reveal that one aspect between humans and dogs is the so-called "secure base effect," which is also found in parent-child bonding. Researchers explain that like human infants, dogs also use their caregivers as a secure base when it comes to interacting with the environment.

Lead researcher Lisa Horn from the Vetmeduni's Messerli Research Institute looked at dogs' reactions under three different conditions: "absent owner", "silent owner" and "encouraging owner".

In the study, the dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys. Horn and her team found that dogs were significantly less keen on working for food when their caregivers were not there than when they were.  However, researchers found that "silent owner" and "encouraging owner" had little influence on the animal's level of motivation.

In another experiment, researchers replaced the owner with a stranger.  Researchers found that the dogs hardly interacted with the strangers and were not much more interested in trying to get the food reward than when this person was not there. Horn and her team found that dogs were much more motivated only when their owner was present. These findings suggest that the owner's present is very important for the dog to behave in a confident manner.

Researchers said the latest study is the first to provide evidence for the similarity between the "secure base effect" found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships.

"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 behavior evolved in the dogs with direct comparisons," Horn said.

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