Are You Special To Your Dog?

New research confirms that you are
By Karen B. London PhD, February 2015, Updated June 2021

Does your dog recognize you, the guardian, as unique in his life? Naturally, you consider him the most important, best, most special dog in the world, but does your dog view you as a unique treasure, or just as any old tall-two-legs capable of feeding him, putting on the leash, opening the door and playing with him?

A recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes titled “Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog–human interactions” investigated questions like these. Specifically, the scientists wanted to know whether dogs interacting with guardians, other people they know well and strangers behaved differently depending on how well they knew the person. With a series of tests on 20 dogs who were well socialized with some training experience, the researchers concluded that:

1. Dogs responded differently to the guardian and the stranger in most situations.  That is, if your dog is like the family dogs in this study, you matter more to your dog than a stranger does. (Whew!)

2. Dogs acted differently when they were with their guardians and when they were with a familiar person when the situation involved playfulness, fear or anxiety, or physical contact.

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3. Dogs reacted similarly to their own guardian and people that they knew well when the task involved responding to obedience cues.

Understanding the effects of the guardian on dog behavior is important because it informs us about the attachment between humans and dogs. It also matters because it shows that behavioral research is affected by which humans, if any, are present during experiments.

 Image: iStock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life