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It is clear that the way a person raises and takes care of their dog has an influence on the latter’s behavior. A team of researchers wondered to what extent the quality of the human-dog relationship might affect the animal’s performance, both behaviorally and cognitively. Their study reveals that an authoritative owner, both demanding and attentive to his dog’s needs, leads to a dog that is more sensitive to social cues and more intelligent.
The behavior and cognition of domestic dogs has received increasing scientific attention in recent decades. Several studies have examined the influence of lifestyle variables, including home environment and past experiences, on dogs’ social behavior and problem-solving ability. However, only a few studies have empirically investigated how the quality of the handler-dog relationship can affect animal performance.
Two animal behavior specialists from Oregon State University, Lauren Brubaker and Monique Udell, have taken an interest in the question. ” In this study, we investigated whether the owner’s expectations and reaction patterns towards his dog could predict the dog’s social behavior and problem solving. “, they explain in the review Pet cognition. They recruited 48 dog owners and interviewed them about how they raised their animals. The dogs were then brought to Udell’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab, where they participated in several behavioral tests.
“Parent” instead of “master”?
In many ways, research into human-dog relationships parallels research into human psychology, Lauren Brubaker said. Parents’ attitudes have been shown to significantly influence their children’s mental health, intellectual achievement, social cognition, attachment, and job performance.
Just as the parents’ behavior is considered an important factor in the development of a child, it is logical to believe that their attitude towards their animals – what specialists call Pet parenting style — affects the dog’s development. The authors of the study point out that many pet care companies have seized on this link and are now targeting pet “parents” rather than pet “owners” to sell their products.
This study is one of the first to examine how the quality of the human-dog relationship can affect the dog’s performance on behavioral and cognitive tests. Based on data collected during the pretest survey, dog owners were divided into three categories, similar to those used in human training:
- “authoritarian”, which corresponds to high expectations and high reactivity (in the sense that the person responds to the needs of his animal);
- “authoritarian,” which corresponds to high expectations but low responsiveness (a form of total control, without any loving attention);
- “permissive”, which corresponds to both low expectation and low responsiveness – meaning that the owner imposes few rules and does not care about his animal.
During the behavioral tests, clear differences emerged between the dogs in these different groups. ” We found that pet training style predicts dog behavior and cognition Monique Udell said.
Being bossy and caring leads to more confident and resilient dogs
The first test aimed to assess the dogs’ attachment to their handler: the handler and the dog were initially in the same room, where the handler interacted with the dog when the latter approached. Then the owner left the room and came back a little later to find his dog. The second test assessed the animal’s sociability: The owner and an unknown person were in the same room as the dog, while scientists studied the animal’s interactions with one or the other. Finally, in the third test, the dog had to try to get a treat by solving a problem, with varying levels of help from its handler.
Dogs with an “authoritative” owner had the highest degree of secure attachment (they calmed down quickly when their owner disappeared and then returned), were highly sensitive to social cues, showed a preference to seek proximity to their owner compared with an unknown person and finally proved to be more independent and persistent in the problem-solving task. Only the dogs of this group have also managed to solve this task, the two specialists say.
Conversely, dogs whose master was considered “authoritarian” did not show the same level of secure attachment to their master; they also spent more time seeking proximity to their master during the sociability test, the study’s authors point out. Finally, dogs whose owners were “permissive” willingly followed the stranger’s social cues, but not their owner’s. These dogs were also less persistent in the task.
These findings suggest that dog owners who take the time to understand and meet their pets’ needs are more likely to have dogs that feel safe and resilient. ” This research shows that the bond between the companion dog and its owner can be functionally and emotionally similar to the bond between a human parent and its child. concludes Brubaker.