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Do Dogs See Us As Masters Or Parents?

Is "man's best friend" just us being soppy, or does your pup really see you as a parent?

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Dr. Katie Spalding

author

Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

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A golden retriever being hugged by a human girl

Just two siblings palling around. Image credit: Nina Buday/Shutterstock.com

Dogs, we are told, are humanity’s best friend. They’ve been by our side for up to 30,000 years and counting, evolving from a few particularly dopey apex predators into the loyal companions of close to half of US households.

But in some ways, this relationship presents something of a philosophical quandary. We don’t know what exactly went down when dogs first wandered in from the cold all those years ago, but it’s certainly true that most of our canine pals were working animals for a lot of human history. They helped us hunt, or herd livestock, or even cook in the kitchens, all at the mercy of an arbitrary hierarchy imposed by their human masters.

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Today, the picture is pretty different. Dogs are pampered, carried around in handbags, and given fabulous haircuts and TV shows. But what does it look like from the dogs’ perspective? Do they think of us as their friends? Their parents? Or are we still just their masters, ordained by some natural law to rule over them with a firm but loving hand?

And more importantly – can we ever truly know what lies in the mind of a pupper?

What makes human-dog bonds special?

There’s no disputing that dogs occupy a special place in humanity’s collective heart. But it bears repeating just how profound that bond really is. Point at an object, and your doggo will take a look at what you’re showing them – an understanding of intention that even our closest cousins, chimpanzees, are unable to demonstrate.

That comprehension runs both ways. “What does a happy bird look like? A sad lion? You don’t know, but dog talk you get,” author and journalist Jeffrey Kluger wrote in 2018. “And as with your first human language, you didn’t even have to try to learn it. You grew up in a world in which dogs are everywhere and simply came to understand them.”

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Even weirder is the fact that, despite still being virtually indistinguishable from wolves on the DNA level – the two species’ mitochondrial DNA is 99.9 percent identical – the human-dog bond cannot be replicated with their wilder cousins. 

And it’s certainly been tried: in a 2015 study into the hormonal basis behind our species’ collective puppy love, researchers found that petting, talking to, and gazing into the eyes of pet dogs produced a massive spike in oxytocin levels in both human and canine partners. The same could certainly not be said of the few pet wolves involved in the study: there was no such increase in hormonal levels after time spent petting and talking with the animals. Gazing into the eyes of a wolf, meanwhile, is more likely to get you attacked than loved up – it’s an unambiguous sign of aggression in the species.

“It's an incredible finding,” Brian Hare, an expert on canine cognition at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the work, told Science Magazine at the time. “[It] suggests that dogs have hijacked the human bonding system.”

Do dogs think we’re friends/family?

Now, all this talk of oxytocin might have reminded you of another type of relationship: the bond between mother and child. Not for nothing is oxytocin sometimes known as the “love hormone”: it’s what connects parents to their children, helps us make friends and trust one another, and if we’re lucky, gets us some terrific orgasms along the way.

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So if bonding with our pet doggos can also release this hormone, does it follow that dogs see us as their family? After all, it certainly seems to work in the opposite direction – at least if all those social media posts about “fur babies” are anything to go by. We dress our canine companions up in little outfits; we give them cutesy names like Trixie Woofwoof or Fred; we spend thousands of dollars a year on them; and we mourn them when they’re gone. 

But is the same true in reverse? Perhaps not: as psychologist Jessica Oliva pointed out in Science Magazine, all that petting and eye gazing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It may well be that the pups were anticipating food or playtime with their humans – both behaviors that can also boost oxytocin levels. 

That said, perhaps it depends on how you define “parent”. That unique bond between hound and human doesn’t just reveal itself through pointing and puppy-dog eyes – dogs are also trusting and dependent on their two-legged companions in a way that even other pets are not.

“Adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do,” said Lisa Horn, from the Vetmeduni’s Messerli Research Institute, Austria, back in 2013. She had recently led an investigation into the “secure base effect” in dogs – the phenomenon more familiarly seen in young children, who depend on the presence of their parents for confidence and emotional security.

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And that’s not the only way in which dogs can resemble children in their interactions with humans. “They try to understand from facial expressions what humans want,” Carlo Siracusa, an associate professor of clinical behavior medicine and director of the animal behavior service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told NBC in 2020. “How likely is it they are going to get something to eat rather than be punished. They are like toddlers.”

Do dogs think we’re masters?

So what about the other option? Dogs are, after all, descended from wolves, an animal virtually synonymous with hierarchical structures. Perhaps our canine pals aren’t our friends or fur babies at all – maybe they see us as benevolent masters? Their alphas, perhaps – or even some kind of hairless bipedal god?

This, at least, is unlikely. For one thing, that whole idea of wolf packs having an “alpha” male or pair has been thoroughly debunked for some time now – that role simply doesn’t exist in the canine mind for a human owner to step into.

On the other hand, there’s clearly a power imbalance in the human-dog relationship. It’s unlikely you’d withhold food from your human child until they completed an unnecessary errand for you, for example, yet this is still standard fare for some canine training manuals. Even today, dogs are put to work herding animals, pulling sleds, and protecting their human owners – all responsibilities you (hopefully) would not entrust to your toddler, no matter how doglike they may sometimes act.

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But the important question there is: how do the doggos feel about all that? And the answer, likely, is “pretty good, actually” – the instinct to herd for herding breeds, for example, is so strong that bored little pups will sometimes even try herding their owners. If this is a master-servant relationship, it’s a pretty good one.

Mommy or master?

So, which is it? Does Fido see you as his owner? His master? Or his mommy? It’s a hard question to answer, not least because of how few dogs speak English. 

But then again – who needs English when you have functional magnetic resonance imaging machines? One 2020 study found that dogs shown a picture of their owner responded with increased activation in areas of the brain associated with emotion and attachment processing – and that seeing that face showing a happy emotion activated the “reward” areas of the brain. Clearly, we are special to our little furry guys.

But exactly how special is a question you might not want to think about too deeply. While there’s little doubt your pupper loves you like an adoptive mommy or daddy, from a species-wide point of view, we might just have been the right species at the right time.

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Dogs have “an abnormal willingness to form strong emotional bonds with almost anything that crosses their path,” Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University who specializes in dog behavior, told The New York Times. And as multiple studies have shown, that need not be a human: dogs that are kept with goats or sheep will bond with goats and sheep; others have even been known to attach themselves to teeny-tiny penguins.

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


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