“Give your dog the choice of you and someone else, and you're going to win.” I wrote this sentence back in 2016, and as a dog lover, you might agree. Numerous studies conclude that you matter to your dog, and your dog probably confirms this on a daily basis. But our relationship with dogs typically does not fit neatly into a soundbite, and there might be more to the story.
Whether dogs prefer to spend time with their owners could depend on context. Researchers Erica Feuerbacher at Virginia Tech and Clive Wynne of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University tackled this issue in a study published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Feuerbacher recently contributed a guest post to Do You Believe in Dog? further describing their findings.
In the study, pet dogs simultaneously encountered their owner and a stranger. During the 10-minute session, dogs could stay near one person, alternate between the two, or say, “Not this time, suckers!” and interact with neither. Whoever the dog approached would pet the dog, focusing on the part of the dog’s body closest to them. So if the dog presented for a belly or butt scratch, the person would provide.
To explore whether dog preference is affected by context, dogs were tested in two vastly different locations. Some encountered their owner and the stranger in the comfort of their own home, while others were tested in a novel setting, a lab room at the University of Florida.
To a degree, my 2016 sentiment was correct. Pet dogs can prefer their owners. But preference appeared to be context-dependent. In the unfamiliar location, dogs were more likely to seek petting from their owner, allocating almost 80% of their interaction time to the owner. By contrast, in a well-known, familiar location, dog preference was reversed, “and owned dogs allocated only approximately 30% of their overall responding to their owner, such that the remaining 70% was allocated to the stranger.”
“The owner is important for the dog in stressful situations,” the researchers conclude. Feuerbacher and Wynne’s study is not a one-off, standalone finding. Instead, it joins a growing body of research identifying the value of the owner to the dog and the power of their bond. In strange places or moments of discomfort, dogs are inclined to seek out their owners. But in ho-hum, ordinary places or when pet dogs are comfortable—possibly because of your presence—dogs who are fans of people are likely to check in with new, unfamiliar people.
You certainly matter to your dog, but my 2016 sentence would benefit from an update: “Give your dog the choice of you and someone else, and you're going to win, depending on context.” Have you seen this play out with your dog?
Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2017). Dogs don't always prefer their owners and can quickly form strong preferences for certain strangers over others. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 108(3), 305–317.
Payne, E., Bennett, P. C., & McGreevy, P. D. (2015). Current perspectives on attachment and bonding in the dog-human dyad. Psychology Research and Behavior Management. 8, 71–79.