We know what we think of our dogs. They are cute, funny, smart, and a welcome addition to our homes. And we think they love us too. They certainly act happy to see us when we come home, and they seem to like being around us while we are there. But how attuned to us are they, really? And why did they develop that connection? Research is beginning to show overwhelmingly that dogs are more connected to us than we previously thought. They turn to us for comfort, companionship, and a feeling of being part of a pack. For dogs, those social feelings are everything. Dogs perceive and attend to humans because we are their family.
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The Root of the Behavior
So, how do we know that dogs feel connected to us? Thanks to researchers from all over the world, we now have empirical evidence that our presence and even our smell has a noticeable effect on a dog's brain. After training a group of dogs to lie in an MRI scanner, a group of scientists from Emory University exposed them to olfactory stimuli from strange dogs, familiar dogs, strange humans, and familiar humans. The scientists found that human smells activated the dogs' reward centers significantly more than dog smells did and that owners' scents were the most appealing of all. But why is the connection so strong, and what is the dog getting out of it? A number of studies suggest that dogs perceive and attend to their owners because they think of us as parents. Work out of Budapest has shown that dogs run toward their owners when they are distressed. In this way, they connect to humans more like children than like other pets, who tend to run away from people when scared or in pain.
Relatedly, researchers from the University of Florida and Arizona State University collaborated to show that dogs actively seek out the company of their owners, even when there is no other tangible benefit involved. They found that when given a task that resulted in the opening of a door, dogs were extremely motivated to perform that task if the reward was timed with the owner on the other side of the door. If the owner was already present in the room, the dogs showed less interest in the door, even when the space outside had significantly more engaging stimuli. But as any dog owner will tell you, humans do not have a monopoly on emotional nurturance. Research from the UK and Brazil also indicates dogs have the ability to read our signals, both auditory and visual, and understand our emotions. If you have ever come home sad and had your dog jump into your lap, you know that dogs use this power for good.
Encouraging the Behavior
The thought that dogs can understand and connect to us is certainly a warm and appealing one. But can we use this perception to strengthen the connection, and to “parent” our dogs more effectively? Again, research says yes. Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, have shown that an owner's presence helps to give a dog confidence and can motivate him or her to engage in a desired behavior. The Viennese team gave dogs the chance to earn an edible reward by interacting with a dog toy in a certain way. Researchers found that the dogs were significantly more enthusiastic about completing the task when the owner was present, and that unfamiliar humans did not have the same encouraging effect.
Therefore, if you want your dog to learn to do something, being there with him or her can make a significant difference. Just standing next to your dog may not instantly create a four-legged Einstein, but it may be enough to motivate him or her to practice “sit,” “stay,” or “leave it.” This natural connection can also remind you as the owner to cultivate and strengthen that human-canine bond. Now that you know what a comfort you are to your dog, you may be able to remind yourself to be there for him or her. Give plenty of attention, keep a predictable routine, and help your dog to feel safe in your presence.Because your dog depends on this bond, he or she will be happier and better adjusted as a result.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Of course, your dog is not the only one that can benefit from this connection. If you know that your dog pays attention to you and works to perceive your emotions, it can serve as a reminder to show your dog when you are upset and even ask him or her for some affection.
Dogs are excellent at providing what is known as deep pressure therapy. By lying on your chest or simply placing his torso on to of yours, depending on the dog's size, your dog can relieve some of your anxiety or stress. Teach your dog to do this by encouraging him to place the front or all of his or her body on you, and then associating that behavior with a command, such as “Paws up” or “On me.” If you allow yourself to look and sound sad, your dog may learn that his cuddles are what you need when you are distressed.
You always knew that you and your dog had something special happening. Now that you know that your bond is real, according to hard science, you can draw on it as a source of security for both you and your four-legged friend - especially when one of you is going through something “ruff!”