Pet Parents: Research Shows Dogs May View Us As Parents

For more from Dr. Ernie Ward, find him on Facebook or at www.drernieward.com.

I take a lot of flak for calling pets “kids,” “children,” and my clients “pet parents.” Some veterinarians and animal experts feel using these terms opens vets up to legal liability, lawsuits, and perhaps demeans human-child relationships. I don’t agree and know many of you also refer to your pets as “children.” New research suggests our dogs may view us as parental figures despite the protestations of specialists and authorities.   

Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) recently published remarkable discoveries exploring the relationship between dogs and their owners. They recognized the deep and complex bond that exists between many humans and their dogs. They also understood owners often described this connection in terms of “parent” and “child.” The scientists sought to determine if this was just talk or was there truth behind the words. What they discovered is going to upset a lot of folks and validate others.

The Viennese veterinary behavior experts wanted to better understand how the “secure base effect” affected dogs. This phenomenon is classically observedPet parent hugging his dog as children's bond with parents. In short, an infant uses a parent as a “secure base” when interacting with the environment. When a child is around a parent or trusted caregiver, they’re more likely to explore and interact with their surroundings. Numerous studies have documented this as an important stage of learning. Lead researcher Lisa Horn set out to establish if dogs displayed the “secure base effect” with their owners.

The study was conducted in two phases. Twenty house dogs were taught that by manipulating interactive toys they could earn food rewards. They then evaluated the dogs under three conditions: encouraging owner, silent owner, and absent owner. When the dogs were in the presence of their owner, encouraging or standing silently nearby, the dogs interacted the most with the toys. When the dogs were observed without the owner present, very few manipulated the toys. Phase one: dogs demonstrated the secure base effect. But the scientists weren’t done.

Maybe dogs just wanted a human around. Maybe thousands of years of domestication taught dogs it was safe to explore their surroundings in the presence of people. Horn and her colleagues repeated the experiment with strangers. Guess what? Not only did the dogs hardly interact with the strangers, they weren’t interested in earning food rewards, either. The differences between the dogs seeking food rewards in the presence of owners and unfamiliar humans were striking and significant. When a “parent” wasn’t around, the dogs simply didn’t want to play or explore. Phase two: once again, dogs displayed the secure base effect.

This is the first research to provide evidence for the secure base effect in dogs. Horn remarked, “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 with direct comparisons."

I feel better now calling dog owners “pet parents.” Further research needs to be conducted (and let’s not forget our feline family members) to verify Horn’s findings. Until then, I’d better go play with both my two- and four-legged kids.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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