It may seem like the love and loyalty of our dogs know no bounds, but would they really choose us over any other person? Well, that depends.
Dogs came by their “fur baby” nickname honestly. They show their owners the same sort of attention that human infants give their parents. They are more likely to play when in the presence of the people who care for them, and they’ll spend longer greeting their owner than anyone else. But whether your pup will choose you over a stranger depends on context, according to a study published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.
Researchers looked at more than a dozen sporting, herding, working, and hound dogs that had either lived with a family for at least four months or had been owner-surrendered to an animal shelter or found as strays. All were at least six months old.
The owned pups were given free range of a room – either the familiar setting of their home or an unfamiliar laboratory room – and had the option to interact with one of two people. If the dog approached, the person would pet them for as long as they were near.
Turns out, a dog’s loyalty is circumstantial and depends on the context and task.
It seems it's not just humans who behave better in front of strangers. The dogs were found to respond better to strangers in obedience-based tasks like “sit” or “down”, but preferred their own people in “relationship-based” scenarios. They spent more time in physical contact with their owner, and even gazed into their eyes for longer (we’re sure with loving, doting puppy eyes) than they would a stranger.
In the lab room, owned dogs showed a preference for their owners 80 percent of the time, but only one-third of the time in their own home.
In another part of the study, both people in the room were strangers. This time, shelter dogs were included, but only in the unfamiliar laboratory setting. Both owned and shelter dogs showed a preference for one person over the other. Researchers say this indicates a dog can form a preference for one person quickly – even within the first 10 minutes.
Overall, an owner is important for the dog in stressful, unfamiliar situations but is more open to strangers in ones where they feel safe. Seems pretty intuitive, right?
This isn’t all just a guise to make you second-guess your best friend’s motives. Researchers say understanding how our furry friends cope with new situations without us will help inform how we treat them – like whether it’s actually better to join them in the vet’s exam room. The fact that both owned and sheltered dogs showed a preference for one person over the other “suggests that dogs can rapidly initiate attachment-like relationships to novel humans,” which could have implications for how we manage our dogs, like when service and working dogs are trained by one person and then later transferred to someone else.
But who are we to say? To see how much your pup really loves you, well, you only need to walk through the front door.