Research

Researchers probe our ‘pet parent’ relationship with dogs

 

Akron Beacon Journal

Our daughters didn’t know what to think the first time I sent out Christmas cards featuring a photo of our dogs. After all, I never put the kids’ pictures on our annual holiday missives when they were young.

But just like a proud new parent, I used computer technology to make my own greeting cards featuring dogs we adopted several years ago.

I am not alone in my preoccupation with my canines. It seems millions of baby boomers are filling our empty nests by replacing our children with pets. The term “pet parents” has become part of the vernacular.

According to a June report in Science Daily, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna investigating the bond between dogs and their owners found striking similarities to the human parent-child relationship. The Vienna scientists’ findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Just as humans have a need to establish close relationships with other people, animals have an innate need for close ties with their own kind. But the study found that for domesticated animals, the situation is more complex: Our animals have developed those same relationships with us.

After 15,000 years of living with humans, dogs have adapted so well they have the ability to transfer the connection they would normally have with another dog to a human as their main social partner. The relationship is highly similar to the deep connection between children and their caregivers, according to recent research.

Lisa Horn of Vienna’s Vetmeduni Messerli Research Institute developed a test to study a dog’s motivation to get a food reward by manipulating an interactive toy and whether its owner affected the dog’s desire to work for the treat.

Horn studied the dogs under three conditions: “absent owner,” “silent owner” and “encouraging owner.”

She concluded that a dog will work harder for a food reward if it had its “pet parent” in the room, whether the owner remains silent or encourages the animal.

Through a follow-up study, the scientists observed that when the owner was replaced by an unfamiliar person, the dog had little motivation to get the reward, similar to its behavior when there was no one in the room.

The test concluded that the dog was only motivated to behave in a confident manner when the owner was present.

The findings are the first evidence that the so-called “secure base effect” found in child-caregiver relationships are similarly found in dog-owner relationships.

“One of the things that really surprised us is that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do,” Horn told Science Daily.

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