The “man’s best friend” label may not go far enough in describing the relationship between people and dogs. A study recently reported in USA Today suggests the relationship is more like that of a parent and child.
"Man's best friend" label may not go far enough, study says.
Led by Lisa Horn, a fellow at Messerli Research Institute’s Unit of Comparative Cognition in Vienna, a team examined dogs’ performance on a task under three conditions: with the owner absent, with the owner offering encouragement, and with the owner silent. The idea was to test the so-called “secure-base effect.” The phenomenon has often been observed in parent/child relationships when a child is asked to complete a task with a stranger nearby or with a parent nearby. The child typically completes the task more confidently when the parent – aka “the secure base” – is close by.
The canine variation involved 22 dogs and their owners, who offered treats when the dogs played with toys. Whether the owner was encouraging or silent had little impact on the animal’s efforts to earn treats. But if the owner was replaced with a stranger, the dogs made much less effort to play than when their owner was in the room.
John Bradshaw, a biologist and director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol’s School of Clinical Veterinary Science in England and author of “Dog Sense,” warned against reading too much in to the study.
“I’m not critical of (Horn’s) research; it’s a nice demonstration of the way dogs behave and discriminate between people they like and know and people they don’t,” he told USA Today. But, “if you start treating dogs as if they are children, then I think we aren’t acknowledging dogs for what they are.”
Still, he said, owners shouldn’t doubt that their affection for their dog is mutual.
“In many instances dogs actually benefit more so (from the relationship),” Bradshaw said. “Their number one priority (after basic needs are met) is to form an attachment to people.”
By Wendy Donahue, for American Dog Club
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