A new study finds that dogs attach to their humans similar to the way young children attach to their parents.
Human infants use their caregivers as a secure base when it comes to interacting with the environment and scientists say until recently the "secure base effect" had not been well examined in dogs.
Lisa Horn, from the Vetmeduni's Messerli Research Institute in Austria, decided to take a closer look at the behavior of dogs and their owners.
She examined the dogs' reactions under three different conditions: "absent owner." "silent owner" and "encouraging owner."
The dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys. Researchers were surprised that the dogs seemed much less keen on working for food when their caregivers were not there than when they were. Whether an owner additionally encouraged the dog during the task or remained silent had little influence on the animal's level of motivation.
In a follow-up experiment, Horn and her colleagues replaced the owner with an unfamiliar person. The scientists saw that dogs barely interacted with the strangers and were not much more interested in trying to get the food reward than when this person was not there. The dogs were much more motivated only when their owner was present. The researchers concluded that the owner's presence is important for the animal to behave in a confident manner.
Researchers say the study provides the first 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," said Horn, a postdoctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria.
The study was published in PLOS ONE on June 21.