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Many dog owners recognise the strong bond they have between their dog and themselves. For many a dog is a family member. But what kind of connection from a scientific point of view do you find when looking deeper into the relation between humans and their dogs?
A strong willed myth lives in the dog world saying that Dogs are opportunists who prefers the person who feeds them. But is that really so or does the connection run deeper than that?
Studies have shown that the relation between human and dog goes much deeper than the dog just viewing the human as a way to get food.
The dog-human relation
A study looked at dogs who lived together and how by removing one of them it would affect the other. They started with just removing one of the dogs from his/her normal environment, leaving the other dog behind expecting to see a change in the remaining dog’s behaviour and increased signs of stress. However, the blood samples and behavioural observations came back unchanged.
They then moved both dogs to an unfamiliar environment, expecting that as long as both dogs where together they would stay calm and no increase in stress levels would be seen. But the opposite was true. The researchers found heightened levels of stress in both behaviour and blood samples despite the dogs being together.
Now here is the interesting thing – when the owner was with the dogs in the new environment, no behavioural or physiological stress was found in the dogs. The dogs stayed calm and had the confidence to explore the room, occasionally going back to their owner as if to get support. This study proves that the relation between human and dog is deeper than first anticipated.
The safe and unsafe relation
A dog’s relation to his/her human can be characterized as similar to the relation or connection you find between parents and their children. Human psychologists have found that the relation between parents and their child can be safe or unsafe.
A safe relation means that the child gets upset when the parents leave him/her but returns to playing or entertaining themselves when the parents return. A safe relation indicates that the parents are sensitive to their child’s needs and are consequently responding to them.
The opposite is true for an unsafe relation between a child and his/her parents. If the relation is unsafe the child gets upset when the parents leave but stays upset after the parents have returned. The children were clingy to their parents and uninterested in other adults. The unsafe relation shows that the parents are in-consequent in their response to their child’s need. Sometimes they respond, sometimes they don’t.
How is this related to dogs?
Well, scientists have also found that the same relation goes for dogs and humans. Dogs with a safe connection to their humans show less behavioural problems in general and this is especially true for separation anxiety cases, which are more common in dogs with an unsafe relation to their human (Read more about separation anxiety in dogs here).
Another study showed exactly how similar the connection is when comparing dogs and their owners with children and parents.
Here they tested how dogs would react when their owner left them. They first introduced both the owner and the dog to an unfamiliar room. The dog could explore freely, and toys were available for play. A stranger would then enter and start to engage with the dog, and then their owner would leave, followed shortly by the stranger, so that the dog was left alone in the room.
As the owner left the scientists observed how the dog would react and found that the dogs reacted exactly like the children described above. Dogs with a safe connection to their owner would explore the room and engage in play while their owner was there, but when the owner left all dogs stopped engaging and instead became anxious and uninterested in engaging with the stranger. When the owner returned, the dogs went back to playing and exploring.
The dogs with an unsafe relation to their owner, continued being anxious and clingy even after their owner returned and showed stress related behaviours.
This study clearly shows how similar the connection is between dogs and their human and a child and his/her parents. It is further supported by the way humans speak to dogs which has also been proven to be the exact same way parents speak to their children. We do this without even thinking about it.
It is not only behaviour wise that we treat children and dogs similarly. Physiologically, scientists have now found that you get the same Oxytocin boost from being with your dog as you do when you are with your child. (Read more about the effects of Oxytocin here)
A final study proves just how big a dog’s trust is in their humans. Dogs were given the choice between 2 bowls, with only one containing treats. The dogs were given directions from their owner and a stranger on which bowl to go to. The results showed that despite that the owners continuously showed the dog to go to the empty bowl, while the stranger always pointed to the bowl with treats, the dogs still followed their owners signals and ignored the signals from the stranger.
From this study we can therefor debunk the myth that dogs are opportunists that prefers the person who feeds them. The connection between human and dog is much deeper and complex than that. It is about a deep connection filled with trust and love.
Konok, V. et al. 2015. Influence of owners’ attachment style and personality on their dogs’ (Canis familiaris) separation-related disorder. PLoS ONE 10, eo118375
Rehn, T., Keeling, L.J. 2016. Measuring dog-owner relationships: Crossing boundaries between animal behaviour and human psychology. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 183, 1-9.
Romero, T. et al. 2014. Oxytocin promotes social bonding in dogs. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 9085-9090
Tuber, D.S. et al. 1996. Behavioural and glucocorticoid responses of adult domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to companionship and social separation. Journal of Comparative Psychology 110, 103-108