Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Researchers in Vienna Demonstrate that Owner-Dog Relationships Share Striking Similarities to Parent-Child Relationships

A very interesting study has been published by researchers in Vienna. 

Lisa Horn (Ludwig Huber Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria & Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range Clever Dog Lab Society, Vienna) with Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna claim that their scientific study provides an important piece of evidence for the similarity between the "secure base effect" found in dog-owner and infant-caregiver relationships.

The study is the first to show that the secure base effect in dogs extends from the Ainsworth's Strange Situation Procedure to other areas of dogs' lives and that it can also manifest in cognitive testing. A comparable effect has been shown in human children when they were confronted with a problem-solving task: those children that were able to use their mother as a secure base were found to be more motivated and persistent in solving the task. However, while the secure base effect is usually only evident in infanthood, where it balances the infants' exploration of the world with maintaining the crucial proximity to the caregiver, dogs seem to be unique in having retained this behavior into adulthood. Dogs living in animal shelters have even been found to establish preferences for specific humans after short positive interactions in adulthood, which already strikingly resemble attachment bonds.

Although the secure base effect we found in this study was specific for the owner, unfamiliar humans like the experimenter also seem to be able to provide some social support for the dogs. A similar effect has been observed in human children when they seek social support from non-attachment figures with whom they had been familiarized prior to the test. Although in adult dogs it has so far mainly been shown that owners are the ones who provide social support for their dogs, in dog puppies social support can also be provided by an unfamiliar human. 

It is likely that the presence or absence of the owner might substantially influence dogs' motivation in other more complex test situations. The owner's absence in the generally unfamiliar experimental setting might cause a lack of security, which in turn could influence the outcome of the test.

The message to take from this research is this: your dog is not a child and should not be treated as one.  However, in the same way that young children need to be allowed to develop their confidence and life skills by exploring the world from the safety and comfort of their mother's arms, so a young puppy needs to be able to develop its confidence and understanding of its environment from the safety of its owners arms.  So don't overwhelm your puppy by constantly throwing it in to new and stressful situations.  Rather gently expose it to new and unsettling situations, but always with a safe pair of arms for it to retreat to if everything threatens to overwhelm it.      

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