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Is Owning a Dog Just Like Having a Kid?

Jack as Don Draper from "MadMen" during  the 21st Annual Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade in New York on October 22, 2011 The parade of masquerading dogs is the largest Halloween Dog Parade in the US. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

We’ve all seen them: Pet owners who treat their dogs or cats like kids—dressing them up, kissing their lips, feeding them caviar, the works. Many of them have argued that their relationship with their pets is “just like having kids.” And guess what? A new scientific study suggests they might be right.

In a new study, researchers at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna found that the bond between humans and dogs possessed a trait found in parent/child relationships called the “secure base effect.” With babies, that means they use their parents as a secure base from which they feel safe exploring their environment.

To see if this behavior existed in dogs, study author Lisa Horn gave canines a chance to earn food rewards by manipulating toys in three different conditions: with their owner absent, the owner present but silent, or with the owner actively offering encouragement.

Dogs, it turned out, were far more interested in the task when their owners were present—when owners were silent or when they were offering encouragement. Researchers took this as evidence that the “secure base effect” does indeed exist with dogs. In a follow-up experiment, Horn replaced the owners with strangers. But the dogs knew the difference, and had little interest in playing with toys unless their owners were there.

“One of the things that really surprised us is that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do,” said Horn, who published her results in the journal PLOS ONE. Pet owners, in other words, aren’t as crazy as some parents might think.

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