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Does your dog see you as family?

Human petting a yellow golden retriever and a black Cocker Spaniel

We often talk about our fur-babies when mentioning our dogs. And it’s not weird when you think about it. You take care of them, feed them, arrange play dates and provide training. In some ways, it can be comparable to taking care of a child. However, they don’t call you mom or dad. But perhaps they do and we just don’t understand. We realised Eva didn’t know our names. So we taught her. Now when we tell her to find either one of us, she will. However, what we still don’t know is how she sees us. Does she think we are all part of the same pack, parents, siblings or cousins? Does your dog see you as family?

Research done in 2013 by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria has been able to give us more insight into this question. Does the behaviour of dogs mimic the one between children and their parents?

How did they test this? The researchers focused on something called the “Secure base aspect”. This is normally used to describe parent and child relationships. Where one or more people in the child’s life provide a safe environment and support the child’s needs to explore and grow. In other words, they have a deep bond with each other which benefits the child’s capability to live day-to-day life. Separation of the child and the “secure base” can cause resistance and anxiety. This could ultimately lead to separation anxiety. The psychoanalyst, psychologist, and psychiatrist John Bowlby, researched this attachment theory on people. Lisa Horn and her colleagues wanted to test it on the behaviour of dogs as well.

In total 20 dogs and their humans volunteered in the research program in Budapest, Hungary. The research consisted of two experiments. In the first one, the researchers tested the individual dog’s behaviour when their pet parent was in the same room, either encouraging them or just being silent. They also tested the dog’s behaviour without the pet parent in the room. The goal was to find out if the dog’s behaviour would vary between the different situations.

Whether the dog’s owner was in the room or not, impacted how long he played with the food dispensing toys. Interestingly, the furry friend didn’t mind whether they were being encouraged or just silently watched. Just knowing their pet parents were in the room, made them more comfortable to keep playing. When their human was not in the room, the dogs spend more time closer to the observing researcher. Potentially the dog was looking for support from the investigator when their human was not by their side. However, this research did not provide a clear answer as to why. Therefore, they conducted another experiment with a different group.

The second experiment was a copy of the first one, however, they added one more test. In total 26 dogs and their human volunteered in the research program in Vienna, Austria. In the additional test, the dog parent was replaced by an unknown person to the dog. This time the goal was to find out if the dog’s behaviour would be the same with a stranger in the room instead of their pet parent. This would help to understand if the dog has a similar child-parent relationship with its human, or if this relationship can be created with any other person in the same room.

You’re probably not surprised to hear, there was a difference in the results. The four-legged friends still preferred to keep playing while his human was in the room. Having a stranger instead, made them less comfortable playing with the toys and they stopped faster. On top of that, the dogs spend more time being close to their own human than to a stranger. This shows that the presence of the pet parent influences the dog’s behaviour and comfort to keep playing with the toys.

In a world where fur babies are a hot topic, the burning question remains: Does your dog see you as family? As we saw above, fascinating research from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has delved into this very topic. Picture this: dogs behaving just like children, with their human parents playing the role of secure base. This study discovered that dogs feel a stronger sense of security and comfort when their pet parents are around, similar to the parent-child relationship. But here’s the kicker: they even prefer their own humans over strangers! So, if you’re treating your dog like family, rest assured that your furry friend sees you in the same light. Embrace that unbreakable bond and affirm your status as a true family member in your dog’s eyes.

What do you think your dog would call you if they could speak your language? Mom? Dad? Provider of the food?

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