Study: Dogs bond with owners similar to babies with parents

(CBS) -- After 15,000 years of humans domesticating dogs, a new study shows the bond formed between a canine and its owner may be close to the one shared between a baby and his or her parent.

Called the "secure base effect," the phenomenon occurs when infants use their caregivers as a steady, reliable home base when interacting with things around them. This security has a profound impact on a child's daily life and how they score on cognitive tests, the study's authors pointed out.

Scientists hypothesize that a similar effect occurs between dogs and their owners. Previous studies have shown that dogs get distressed and look for their owners when they are put in an unfamiliar situation, the authors noted.

To test whether the "secure base effect" exists between dogs and people, researchers examined how the behavior of 20 adult dogs changed depending on their owner's presence.

In the first experiment, dogs were allowed to manipulate (play with) different interactive toys to get a treat inside. The owner was either not there at all (absent owner), did not encourage the dog to complete the task and wore a blindfold (silent owner) or was enthusiastic and supportive of the dog while he or she was trying to complete the task (encouraging owner).

The dogs were less motivated to get the treat and spent less time with the toys when their owners were not present. Also, whether or not the owner encouraged the dog to work on the toy did not play a role on how motivated they were to play with the toy. Further tests revealed the dog's existing level of separation anxiety, as measured by a separate test, also did not play a role.

"In this case, dogs that experienced strong separation distress would have been expected to manipulate shorter than dogs that were not distressed by the owners absence," the authors wrote. "However, since the dogs' duration of manipulation was not negatively correlated with their individual separation-related behavior score, we showed that the owners absence did not affect the dogs differently."

Then, the researchers introduced a stranger into the experiment. The dogs did not interact with the stranger on average, and were more likely to play with the stranger only if its owner was in the room. If the stranger was alone with the dog, the pet spent a small amount of time with the toys -- similar to when its owner was not there.

"The fact that the presence of an unfamiliar human did not significantly increase the duration of [play] in the dogs compared to when they were alone with the experimenter provides evidence for a secure base effect in dogs that's specific for the owner, and therefore, comparable to the one found in infant-caregiver relationships," the authors concluded.

In addition, when the owners entered the room alone, the dogs were more likely to be enthusiastic and greet them for a longer period of time compared to a stranger. If the dogs were left alone and presented with the two chairs and two pieces of clothing (one belonging to the owner and the other to the stranger), the dog would touch the owners clothing and sit closer to their owner's chair.

The researchers concluded that dogs were only motivated to play because they were more secure when their owner was present, similar to how children act when their caregiver is around.

"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," Lisa Horn, a postdoctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, said in a press release.

The study was published in PLOS ONE on June 21.

It's not just dogs who benefit from having their humans around. Pet owners, especially those who have a canine companion, reap heart benefits, research from the American Heart Association revealed. Owning a dog was associated with improved blood pressure and lowered cholesterol and stress levels.

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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