If you're the kind of dog owner who doesn't see anything wrong with pampering a pooch as if it were your own child, here's some good news: A new study published in the journal PLoS One has found that canines and human babies are eerily similar in the way they're dependent on human adults.
First, a bit of history: The first domestic dogs are believed to have begun following our ancestors around somewhere between 15,000 to 33,000 years ago, though the exact "why" is still a matter of contention. Some believe that humans domesticated early wolves they found poking around in the village outskirts for leftover food. Other experts theorize that canines developed a symbiotic relationship with our hunter-gatherer ancestors much earlier on, swooping in for easy scraps left over from big, meaty kills.
In this new study, researcher Lisa Horn of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, sought to examine just how dependent dogs are on their human caregivers. To do so, she and her team observed a group of test dogs, who could win food rewards by interacting with certain dog toys, in three different conditions: While the owner was absent; while the owner was present but silent; and while the owner was encouraging the dog. Researchers found that whenever the owner wasn't in the picture, the dogs was far less interested in working for treats.
Then the experiment was repeated, only with a stranger in place of the dog's owner. Researchers were surprised when the dogs were largely indifferent to another human's warmth and encouragement, even when tasty snacks were used as motivation.
Horn and her team call this the "secure base effect." Originally pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby, it is described as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (1969). Infants are dependent on their parents for food, shelter, and love, which creates a "secure base" for them as they explore an unfamiliar world.
The same is apparently true for dogs. They look specifically to their specific humans — not some snack-wielding imposter — for a sturdy base in unfamiliar surroundings. "The study provides the first evidence for the similarity between the 'secure base effect' found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships," says Horn. "It will be really interesting to try to find out how this behavior evolved in the dogs with direct comparisons."
In other words, go ahead and pamper away.