Are Dogs Now Just Furry Kids?

Research is showing how much the bonds between dogs and their owners have become like a parent-child relationship

Research says dogs have learned to behave like children.
Research says dogs have learned to behave like children. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sebastian Dario

The Summer of 2013 officially began only last Friday, but already it has a good shot at achieving a dubious distinction in the annals of parental indulgence. This could be the summer that ice cream trucks for dogs go mainstream.

Ever since the K99 ice cream truck set up shop in the parks of London during the summer of 2010–to the tune of the Scooby Doo theme song, no less–the trend of cruising trucks full of specially-made canine ice cream treats and cookies has been spreading and appears to be hitting its jaunty stride. Last summer, they started dropping by dog parks in more and more American cities, confident in the knowledge that all it takes is one person ponying up $3 for a doggie cone and in no time, every other dog owner in the vicinity will feel compelled to do the same for their own little precious. And now, according to a story on NBC’s website this weekend, some of the more successful dog food trucks are talking about franchising their brands.

This was inevitable, I suppose, given all the singles whose significant other has paws, and all the aging Baby Boomers whose own kids have moved out, or at least down to the basement. These days, dog love swings easily into sweet, excessive indulgence.

Among recent examples of ideas whose time apparently has come are a device developed by a San Francisco firm that allows pet owners to track how active their dog is during the day while they’re at work, and a high-end dog food whose main ingredient is ground-up chicken feathers. It’s designed for dogs with food allergies.

Kid stuff

Products like those get much of the media attention, yet some of the more interesting developments in the deepening entanglement of dogs and owners have not been in the marketplace, but in scientific laboratories. Researchers have been focusing on the potent bond between dogs and owners, particularly how it affects a pet’s behavior.

For instance, a study done at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, found that connections between dogs and their owners can have striking similarities to parent-child relationships. Okay, no surprise there, but what they learned about how it influences a dog’s confidence was pretty revealing.

Specifically, they saw that, as in parent-child bonding, dogs use their caregivers as a “secure base” from which to interact with the world around them. In this case, the dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating toys. But they showed much less interest in working for a treat when their owners weren’t around. If they were there, it didn’t seem to make much difference if the owner was silent or encouraging. What mattered was their presence. And it couldn’t be just any human–the dogs weren’t very motivated when a stranger was in the room with them. Only when their owners were nearby did they go after the food with gusto.

Said researcher Lisa Horn, “One of the things that really surprised us is, that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do.”

Dark thoughts

Then there was the study published earlier this year in the journal Animal Cognition, which concluded that dogs are much more likely to steal food if they think nobody can see them. Again, big surprise, right? Anyone with a dog knows that even the most guileless mutt becomes a creature of cunning when food is involved.

But there’s a larger lesson here. What the research actually determined was that dogs were four times more likely to sneak food in a dark room than a lighted room. Which suggests that they can understand when a human can or cannot see them. And that could mean that dogs are capable of understanding a human’s point of view.

Explained lead researcher Juliane Kaminski:

“”Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that’s us thinking, not them.The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective.”

In dogs we trust

Here are other recent studies on the dog-human connection:

  • Beware of southpaws: According to researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia, dogs that show a preference for using their left paws are more aggressive toward strangers than dogs that are right-pawed or show no preference. But they also found that left-pawed dogs were no more excitable or attention-seeking than other dogs. Only about 10 percent of humans are left-handed, but there’s an even split between left-pawed, right-pawed, and ambilateral canines.
  • Fortunately, humans have refrained from chasing their butts: It turns out that Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) have similar abnormalities in their brain structure as humans with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). That makes scientists more hopeful that further research in CCD–exhibited in dogs by blanket-sucking, tail-chasing, and chewing–could help lead to new therapies for OCD in humans.
  • Thanks for sharing: If you have a dog, you no doubt realize that it brings a lot of bacteria into your home. What you may not realize is that’s not a bad thing. For instance, skin microbes, note scientists at North Carolina State University, can help you fight off diseases. Particularly high levels of microbes related to dogs were found on pillowcases and, strangely enough, TV screens.
  • Except when they pee on the rug: No source less than the American Heart Association says that owning a dog can be good for your heart. The organization issued a statement to that effect last month following a scientific review of research showing that dog owners not only get more exercise, but also can have their stress levels and heart rates lowered by the presence of their pets.
  • If dogs were on Facebook, they’d like everything: And finally, a survey by the research firm Mintel found that almost half of those who participated said that their pets are better for their social lives than being on Facebook or Twitter. Also, according to the survey, almost one out of five Millenials who own a dog or cat have a pet-related app on their smartphones.

Video bonus: You think dogs couldn’t really appreciate the approach of an ice cream truck? Think again.

Video bonus bonus: When you see a salsa-dancing dog, you feel compelled to share.

Video bonus bonus bonus: And while we’re at it, here’s why you should let sleeping dogs–and cats–lie.

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