The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Why Do Adult Dogs Become Like Human Children to Owners?

Owner-dog relationships mimic parent-child bonding and improve well-being.

Humans have an innate need to bond with other human beings and with pets. Many animals are hardwired to form intimate bonds with other members of their species. Anyone who has bonded with a dog knows first hand why dogs are considered “man’s best friend.”  

For domesticated pets, close-knit bonds are often formed not only with conspecifics (of or belonging to the same species) but also with their owners. Domestic dogs and humans have been forming intimate bonds for at least 15,000 years. The moniker “man’s best friend” grew out of the fact that dogs are so well adapted to living with human beings that the owner often replaces conspecifics and becomes the dog’s primary social partner.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

What are the roots of the intense bonding that occurs between humans and dogs? Scientists at the University of Veterinary medicine in Vienna have found that the bond between dogs and their owners shares striking similarities to the relationship between human parents and their children. Previous studies have shown that pet owners have improved psychological and physical health but surprisingly dogs have not been proven to increase human longevity.

The relationship between pet owners and dogs parallels the deep connection formed between young children and their parents. The Vienna veterinary study was published in the journal PLOS ONE on June 21, 2013. This is the first study to trace the roots of this bonding between dogs and their owners back to the “Secure Base Effect.”

What is “Secure Base Effect”?

Secure Base Effect is a fundamental part of parent-child bonding. Human infants literally view their caregivers as a “secure base” when it comes to gaining confidence for interacting with the environment inside and outside the home. Until now, Secure Base Effect had not been thoroughly examined in dogs and their owners. The Vienna study provides the first evidence of the similarity between the Secure Base Effect found in dog-owner bonds as it parallels child-caregiver relationships. The researchers intend to follow up this investigation with a direct comparative study between dogs and children.

Lead researcher Lisa Horn was curious to take a look at the relationship between dogs and owners based on the Secure Base Effect. In order to do this she decided to examine the dogs' reactions under three different conditions: "absent owner," "silent owner" and "encouraging owner."

In her experiment, the dogs could earn a food reward, by manipulating interactive dog toys. Interestingly, Horn found that dogs seemed much less interested in working for food when their caregivers were absent. Whether an owner encouraged the dog during the task or remained silent, had little influence on the animal's level of motivation to earn a food reward. 

In a follow-up experiment, Horn and her colleagues replaced the owner with an unfamiliar person. The scientists observed that most dogs didn’t interact 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 generally only motivated more when their owner was present. The researchers concluded that the owner's presence is important for the animal to behave in a confident manner based on Secure Base Effect. As Horn says, "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."

Bonding With a Pet Improves Owner’s Well-Being

Pets can serve as an important source of social and emotional support for people from all walks of life.  According to a 2011 study published by the American Psychological Association, owning a pet improves the well-being of people who are sick, but also makes "everyday healthy people" feel better. Psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted a series of experiments to examine the potential benefits of pet ownership among what they called "everyday people."

"We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions," said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio. "Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners."

Prior studies have shown that elderly Medicare patients with pets have fewer doctor visits than similar patients without pets, and that HIV-positive men with pets are generally less depressed than those without. McConnel and colleagues examined whether pet owners benefit more when their pet is perceived to fulfill their social needs better. This study found greater well-being among owners whose dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence.

They also discovered  that pets can make people feel better after experiencing rejection. Subjects were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded. Then they were asked to write about their favorite pet, or to write about their favorite friend. The researchers found that writing about pets was just as effective as writing about a friend when it came to staving off hurtful feelings of rejection. The researchers concluded, "The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support.”

Conclusion: Pets provide many benefits, but cannot substitute human bonds.

Bonding with animals improves the quality of life for most dog owners. Surprisingly, pets have not been shown to have a direct impact on our longevity. Dog owners know first hand that a dog is reliable ally for company, friendship, and affection. The positive impact that animals have on their caregivers' overall well-being and happiness are undeniable. But, human social connections trump the connection to a pet when it comes to increasing longevity according to researchers.

The verdict on whether pets can actually help us live longer is complex and perplexing. Health scientists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin have analyzed data gathered over an 80-year period from 1,500 people in California. As authors of The Longevity Project, Friedman and Martin have studied more than eight decades’ worth of data and deciphered which personality traits and lifestyle behaviors increase lifespan. The research was started in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman.

The Longevity study's results debunk many popular notions about what actually helps us live longer. When asked what one resolution would have the greatest impact on longevity, Friedman insists that time spent with family and friends is the single most important habit for living longer. "The Longevity Project discovered that it is responsible, goal-oriented citizens, well-integrated into their communities" who are most likely to have healthy and long lives, he says. "Connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over one's diet, rigorous exercise program, or work load," Friedman concludes emphatically.

There is no denying that pets become like family to their owners and that the family dog views his or her caregivers as surrogate parents. A dog offers love, companionship, and also increases the odds of an owner being more physically active—which has mutliple health benefits. But social connectivity with family and friends is always going to be the best way to create the Secure Base Effect in your adult life, improve long term health, and increase your lifespan.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

more...

Subscribe to The Athlete's Way

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.