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What do dogs really think of their owners?

Do Dogs See Us as Masters or Parents?

We all know people treat their dogs like children, but do dogs think of humans as parents? Scientists believe so.

The 16 th century poet John Donne famously wrote the now-common line, “no man is an island,” meaning that people instinctively need relationships and interaction with fellow human beings in order to be happy.

Current research has shown that this idea extends beyond humans and includes other animals, including our domesticated canine friends, who develop a special, child-like bond with their owners, according to scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna).

“One of the things that really surprised us is that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do,” said Lisa Horn from the Vetmeduni Messerli Research Institute.

According to the university, dogs have been closely associated with humans for about 15,000 years. The animals are so well adapted to living with human beings that, in many cases, the owner replaces the need for connection with other dogs and assumes the role of the dog’s main social partner. The relationship between pet owners and dogs turns out to be highly similar to the deep connection between young children and their parents.

SEE ALSO: Science Confirms What Pet Owners Already Know: Dogs are Self Aware

One aspect of the bond between humans and dogs is the so-called «secure base effect» also found in parent-child bonding. In essence, human infants use the presence of caregivers as a secure base when it comes to interacting with the environment. The «secure base effect» had not been well examined in dogs until Horn decided to take a closer look at the behaviour of dogs and their owners.

She examined the dogs’ reactions under three different conditions: «absent owner,» «silent owner» and «encouraging owner.» The dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys. The dogs seemed much less keen on working for food when their caregivers were not there than when they were. Most surprisingly, whether an owner additionally encouraged the dog during the task or remained silent had little influence on the animal’s level of motivation.

In a follow-up experiment, Horn and her colleagues replaced the owner with an unfamiliar person. The scientists observed that dogs hardly interacted with the strangers and were not significantly more interested in trying to get the food reward than when this person was absent. The dogs were much more motivated only when their owner was present.

The researchers concluded that the owner’s presence is important for the animal to behave in a confident manner.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, provided the first evidence for the similarity between the «secure base effect» found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships. The researchers plan to further investigate the striking parallel between dogs and children through direct comparative studies with a specific focus on tracing the evolution of the behavior in dogs.

Based on material provided by the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.



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Brain Scans Reveal Dogs’ Thoughts

Fido’s expressive face, including those longing puppy-dog eyes, may lead owners to wonder what exactly is going on in that doggy’s head. Scientists decided to find out, using brain scans to explore the minds of our canine friends.

The researchers, who detailed their findings May 2 in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, were interested in understanding the human-dog relationship from the four-legged perspective.

«When we saw those first [brain] images, it was unlike anything else,» said lead researcher Gregory Berns in a video interview posted online. «Nobody, as far as I know, had ever captured images of a dog’s brain that wasn’t sedated. This was [a] fully awake, unrestrained dog, here we have a picture for the first time ever of her brain,» added Berns, who is director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy.

He added, «Now we can really begin to understand what dogs are thinking. We hope this opens a whole new door into canine cognition, social cognition of other species.» [10 Barking Doggy Facts]

Sit … stay … still
Berns realized dogs could be trained to sit still in a brain-scanning machine after hearing that a U.S. Navy dog had been a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. «I realized that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters and airplanes, we could certainly train them to go into an fMRI to see what they’re thinking,» Berns said.

So he and his colleagues trained two dogs to walk into and stay completely still inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that looks like a tube: Callie, a 2-year-old feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog; and McKenzie, a 3-year-old border collie.

In the experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals, with the left hand pointing down signaling the dog would receive a hot-dog treat and the other gesture (both hands pointing toward each other horizontally) meaning «no treat.» When the dogs saw the treat signal, the caudate region of the brain showed activity, a region associated with rewards in humans. That same area didn’t rev up when dogs saw the no-treat signal. [Video of dog experiment]

«These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,» Berns said. «And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.»

Mirror into human mind
The researchers think the findings open the door for further studies of canine cognition that could answer questions about humans’ deep connection with dogs, including how dogs represent human facial expressions in their minds and how they process human language.

With such an evolutionary history between man and man’s best friend, the studies, the researchers point out, «may provide a unique mirror into the human mind,» they write.

«The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution,» Berns said.

In fact, research published in the August 2010 issue of the journal Current Anthropology suggests our love of these furry four-legged creatures may have deep roots in human evolution, even shaping how our ancestors developed language and other tools of civilization.

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Jeanna Bryner is managing editor of Scientific American. Previously she was editor in chief of Live Science and, prior to that, an editor at Scholastic’s Science World magazine. Bryner has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master’s degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species, including the gorgeous Florida scrub jay. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She is a firm believer that science is for everyone and that just about everything can be viewed through the lens of science.

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A Glimpse Into the Dog’s Mind: A New Study Reveals How Dogs Think of Their Toys

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In a new study just published in the journal of Animal Cognition, researchers from the Family Dog Project (Eötvös Loránd University University, Budapest) found out that dogs have a “multi-modal mental image” of their familiar objects.

This means that, when thinking about an object, dogs imagine the object’s different sensory features. For instance, the way it looks or the way its smells.

The group of scientists assumed that the senses dogs use to identify objects, such as their toys, reflect the way the objects are represented in their minds.

“If we can understand which senses dogs use while searching for a toy, this may reveal how they think about it” explains Shany Dror, one of the leading researchers of this study.

“When dogs use olfaction or sight while searching for a toy, this indicates that they know how that toy smells or looks like”.

In previous studies, the researchers discovered that only a few uniquely gifted dogs can learn the names of objects.

“These Gifted Word Learner dogs give us a glimpse into their minds, and we can discover what they think about when we ask them – Where is your Teddy Bear?” explains Dr. Andrea Sommese, the second leading researcher.

In the first experiment, they trained 3 Gifted Word Learner dogs and 10 typical family dogs (i.e., dogs that do not know the name of toys), to fetch a toy associated with a reward. During the training, dogs received treats and were praised for choosing this toy over a few distractor toys.

The researchers then observed how the dogs searched for the targeted toy, always placed among 4 others, both when the lights were on and off. All dogs successfully selected the trained toys, both in the light and in the dark. However, it took them longer to find the toys in the dark.

Only the Gifted Word Learner dogs participated in the second experiment. Here, the researchers aimed to find out what these dogs think about when they hear the name of their toys.

“Revealing the senses used by the dogs to search for the named toys gave us the possibility to infer what these dogs imagine when they hear, for example, Teddy Bear,” explains Dr. Claudia Fugazza, co-author of the study.

This shows a dog with a lot of snuggly toys

The Gifted dogs were successful in selecting the toys named by their owners in the light and the dark. This reveals that, when they hear the name of a toy, they recall this object’s different sensory features and they can use this “multisensory mental image” to identify it, also in the dark.

“Dogs have a good sense of smell, but we found that dogs preferred to rely on vision and used their noses only a few times, and almost only when the lights were off,” clarifies Prof. Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology at ELTE University and co-author of the study.

“Dogs sniffed more often and for longer in the dark. They spent 90% more time sniffing when the lights were off, but this was still only 20% of the searching time”.

Credit: Genius Dog Challenge

To conclude, the dogs’ success in finding the toys and the different senses used while searching in the light and the dark reveals that, when dogs play with a toy, even just briefly, they pay attention to its different features and register the information using multiple senses.

This research is part of the Genius Dog Challenge research project that aims to understand the unique talent that Gifted Word Learner dogs have. The researchers encourage dog owners who believe their dogs know multiple toy names, to contact them on the Genius Dog Challenge website.

About this animal cognition research news

Author: Sara Bohm
Source: ELTE
Contact: Sara Bohm – ELTE
Image: The image is credited to Cooper Photo


Multisensory mental representation of objects in typical and Gifted Word Learner dogs

Little research has been conducted on dogs’ (Canis familiaris) ability to integrate information obtained through different sensory modalities during object discrimination and recognition tasks. Such a process would indicate the formation of multisensory mental representations. In

Experiment 1, we tested the ability of 3 Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs that can rapidly learn the verbal labels of toys, and 10 Typical (T) dogs to discriminate an object recently associated with a reward, from distractor objects, under light and dark conditions.

While the success rate did not differ between the two groups and conditions, a detailed behavioral analysis showed that all dogs searched for longer and sniffed more in the dark. This suggests that, when possible, dogs relied mostly on vision, and switched to using only other sensory modalities, including olfaction, when searching in the dark.

In Experiment 2, we investigated whether, for the GWL dogs (N = 4), hearing the object verbal labels activates a memory of a multisensory mental representation.

We did so by testing their ability to recognize objects based on their names under dark and light conditions. Their success rate did not differ between the two conditions, whereas the dogs’ search behavior did, indicating a flexible use of different sensory modalities. Little is known about the cognitive mechanisms involved in the ability of GWL dogs to recognize labeled objects.

These findings supply the first evidence that for GWL dogs, verbal labels evoke a multisensory mental representation of the objects.

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