January 16, 2024 at 12:48 pm

Does Your Dog Think You’re His Parent Or His Master? Science Finally Has The Answer.

by Trisha Leigh

We all love our dogs. Some people might view them more like employees, while others absolutely consider them family, but overall, we treat them as we would someone we adore.

How do they see us, though?

When you refer to yourself as a “dog mom” or say “I don’t have kids, but I have dogs!’ do your dogs agree there is a parent-child dynamic?

Source: iStock

It turns out that while the happiness and reward centers in their brains do light up when they see us, dogs just aren’t that discerning when it comes to emotional bonding.

When dogs were first domesticated it was almost exclusively because of the help they could give us – hunting, herding, or for protection. While some dogs do still perform functions in households or society, a large number are now kept as simple pets.

The bond we formed was and is mutually beneficial, though. Because of our closeness through history, dogs can interpret at least the spirit of what we’re saying, and we can understand the gist of their feelings (and needs and wants), too.

Puppies and babies are born into, and grow into, a world where this understanding already exists and is both accepted and expected.

This closeness cannot be replicated with wolves and other wild dogs, despite having nearly identical DNA to their domestic brethren. When humans look into their dog’s eyes, we both get a big spike in oxytocin levels.

It doesn’t happen with wolves, even ones kept as pets – and can sometimes lead to aggression, which is the opposite response.

Source: iStock

Brian Hare, a canine expert from Duke University, thinks this is big news.

“It’s an incredible finding. It suggests that dogs have hijacked the human bonding system.”

Oxytocin is the “love hormone,” and is produced when bonding with offspring and during those first blissful months of romantic love. It helps us form attachments – platonic, romantic, familial – and helps build trust as well.

However, psychologist Jessica Oliva points out that this doesn’t necessarily mean the impact is the same in your dog.

If you were playing with your dog, or petting them, or even feeding them, the oxytocin release could be associated with the actions, not your presence.

That said, Lisa Horn from the Vetmeduni’s Messerli Research Institute in Austria allows that making your dog feel secure is something associated with a parent.

“Adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do. […] They try to understand from facial expressions what humans want. How likely is it that they are going to get something to eat rather than be punished? They are like toddlers.”

For what it’s worth, most researchers don’t think dogs view us as “masters” or that a modern home in any way resembles a canine hierarchical structure.

Sorry, dog trainers.

In 2020, researchers hooked dogs up to functional magnetic resonance imaging machines and found that, while looking at pictures of their owners, responded with increased brain activity.

It was in the areas of the brain that are associated with emotion and attachment processing.

So, we’re special to them! Yay!

Source: iStock

But like said at the outset of the article, a lot of things are special to dogs.

They maintain an “abnormal willingness to form strong emotional bonds with almost anything that crosses their path,” according to dog behavior psychologist Clive Wynne.

Dogs have been known to form strong emotional bonds with goats and sheep, and even more exotic animals like penguins.

“And they maintain this bonding ability throughout life. Above and beyond that they have a willingness and an interest to interact with strangers.”

So yes, your dog loves you and sees you as family.

But if they needed to be rehomed with a new family they would love them, too.

I suggest we should see that as a very good thing.