Dog Parenting: How to Shape Behavior and Strengthen Our BondAug 31, 2023 ● By Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
Although the saying is that dogs are our best friends, canine companions are a lot like kids, too. In the same way that parenting styles impact children’s mental and emotional development, so do pet parenting choices. How we guide and care for our dogs can shape their behavior, responsiveness, attachment, cognition and overall well-being.
A 2022 study in the journal Animal Cognition found that authoritative pet parents, defined as those with high expectations for their dogs, have the most positive influence on the behavior and cognition of their pets. The study’s co-author, Monique Udell, an associate professor at Oregon State University, says, “We found that pet parenting style does predict patterns of dog behavior and cognition. This is an important finding because it suggests that dog owners who take the time to understand and meet their dog's needs are more likely to end up with secure, resilient dogs.”
Pet Parenting Styles
A range of factors will determine a dog owner’s parenting style, but in general there are three categories:
- Authoritative (high expectations, high responsiveness)
- Authoritarian (high expectations, low responsiveness)
- Permissive (low expectations, low responsiveness)
Dogs with authoritative owners are the most likely to have secure attachment styles, be highly responsive to social cues, prefer to be close to their owner over an unfamiliar person and be more independently persistent in solving problems.
Understanding the Human-Canine Connection
Dogs track human eye movements, linking them with intent. One study has suggested that when a dog's gaze follows a human’s, it's not simply a reflex; rather, it is associated with the human's “communicative intent”. A dog’s ability to interact with its owner at this level helps strengthen the bond they share.
According to study co-author and behavioral scientist Lauren Brubaker, research into human-dog relationships parallels human psychological research in that, just as a child’s development, mental health, intellectual success, social cognition, attachment and job performance are influenced by their upbringing, human-dog relationships influence a dog’s behavior and cognition.
A positive connection between humans and their canine family members is mutually beneficial on many levels. Science has revealed a demonstrable chemistry between dogs and their humans, and, in fact, daily interactions with our canine companions have a measurably beneficial effect on our biochemistry, thanks to a hormone called oxytocin, sometimes called the “hug hormone” or the “love chemical”.
A Japanese study involving 55 dogs and owners proved that when we share loving visual connections with our dogs, everyone benefits. The researchers found that people whose dogs looked upon them for two minutes or more showed increased levels of oxytocin and claimed to be happier than owners whose dogs regarded them for a minute or less.
In a 2003 study conducted at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa, researchers had dog owners focus solely on their pets for half an hour, talking with them as they stroked, scratched and petted them. The owners’ blood was drawn at the beginning and at the end of the 30-minute session.
The scientists found that blood pressure decreased in the human subjects, while oxytocin increased, as did other beneficial hormones, such as beta-endorphins, which are associated with both pain relief and euphoria; prolactin, which promotes bonding between parent and child; phenylethylamine, which is increased in people involved in romantic relationships; and dopamine, which heightens feelings of pleasure. These hormones were also elevated in the dogs, which suggests the feelings of attachment are mutual.
As we see, there is a demonstrable positive chemistry between dogs and humans. Not only can our pet parenting style shape a dog's behavior, it also has potential wellness benefits for us─mentally, physically, emotionally or all the above.
Veterinarian Karen Shaw Becker has spent her career empowering animal guardians to make knowledgeable decisions to extend the life and well-being of their animals. To learn more, visit DrKarenBecker.com.