Dog Emotions & The Human-Animal Bond: Are We All Pet Parents Now?

by Mary Haight on October 30, 2014

pet parents

Do you think of yourself as a pet parent or more as a pet owner? In the interest of full disclosure, I think of us as pet parents and here’s why: We are responsible for similar basics parents of toddlers are. Our pet’s physical and mental well-being, their healthy curiosity about and confidence in the world around them, and opportunities to learn through positive experiences are up to us.

Maybe you think pet parents is a too mawkish, over the top phrase — but not so fast. The relationship we have with our dogs may be closer to pet parents than you think.

A growing body of published research shows how similar dog emotions can be to our own. Now a neurobiological study provides another piece of this puzzle from the human side of this equation.

Measuring Love Using Science

Brain imaging technologies are helping make brain activity comparisons of differences and similarities in the human-animal bond and the mother-child bond to get to the heart of the matter. In order to be a candidate for this research, moms had to have at least one child between 2 and 10 years and a dog who has been in the household for at minimum of two years.

This small study (only 16 participants, 14 who completed) by Massachusetts General Hospital had two sessions. One in the home of the participant where questionnaires were answered, including one describing the relationship with the child and the dog. Photos were taken. The second session was held at the hospital where the fMRI:

“…indicates levels of activation in specific brain structures by detecting changes in blood flow and oxygen levels — was performed as participants lay in a scanner and viewed a series of photographs. The photos included images of each participant’s own child and own dog alternating with those of an unfamiliar child and dog belonging to another study participant.”

More paperwork followed and you can see the particulars here (ScienceDaily.com). While researchers know larger studies are needed there are some general findings that may serve as hypotheses for studies that follow.

 Dog Emotions, Human-Animal Bond — Early Results

There were differences and similarities to reactions of participants. “There is a common brain network important for pair-bond formation and maintenance that is activated” when moms looked at photos of their children and the family dog. And then there’s this, which was in one area, an unexpected outcome:

 “Areas previously reported as important for functions such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction all showed increased activity when participants viewed either their own child or their own dog. A region known to be important to bond formation — the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SNi/VTA) — was activated only in response to images of a participant’s own child. The fusiform gyrus, which is involved in facial recognition and other visual processing functions, actually showed greater response to own-dog images than own-child images.

Observed differences in activation of some regions that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships. For example, like the SNi/VTA, the nucleus accumbens has been reported to have an important role in pair-bonding in both human and animal studies. But that region showed greater deactivation when mothers viewed their own-dog images instead of greater activation in response to own-child images, as one might expect. We think the greater response of the fusiform gyrus to images of participants’ dogs may reflect the increased reliance on visual than verbal cues in human-animal communications.”

The status of dogs over the last 50 years has changed in remarkable ways. While we may not all be self-identifying as pet parents quite yet, our understanding of the range of dog emotions, intelligence, their perception of our world, and how we can be better companions to them continues to unfold.

So what about you — do you prefer pet parent, dog owner, or something else? No judging =)

Photo credits:

Wedding Photographers, Huntsville, AL
Newborn Photographer, Huntsville, AL

 

 

15 comments
dzdogadventures
dzdogadventures

The hubby and I definitely call ourselves parents, when people ask if we have kids I usually respond saying we have 4, two cats and two dogs. Dante and Ziva are my kids and furbabies, I'm a pibble mama, the hubby is often referred to as "daddy". 

We play the same game that Dogthusiast plays - "where's mommy/daddy?"

Our family finds it kind of funny but they are getting used to it.  I wrote an article about it called, "Dogs vs. Kids".

At this point in our life we don't think we want any human children, we are very satisfied with our furbabies. We work hard to make sure they are receiving the best care, we dedicate a ton of time to training, have them on a healthy diet and overall do our best to make sure they are loved and all their needs met just as you would a human child.  :-)

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@dzdogadventures Thanks for adding to the conversation and sharing a laugh! I was always thankful that my mom realized the only grandchildren she was going to get would have four legs. And she was delighted!
(After a few seconds as the realization settled in...) Sounds like your dogs have a wonderful life, and that is as it should be!

Latest blog post: Dog Training the American Male

dogthusiast
dogthusiast

I absolutely think there are many similarities in the caregiving sense. I loved Trish King's book Parenting your Dog - I've studied under her, and she is a fabulous behaviorist.  


Terminology wise, sure... it makes sense despite not being nearly as intensive as being the parent to a furless child - pets are much cheaper despite feeding top notch raw food, don't have to think about school districts, and I can leave them at home alone while I go to the gym! We also get them for a disturbingly shorter period of time.


I will admit that, for fun, I use the term DogMom and DogDad at times - one word, very important. We have a for-fun training term "where's (mom or dad)" to go find the other human. Most often I call my dogs their name, and me "the girl" or "his/her human". But I hate, hate, hate the term "pet parent" with an almost fervent passion. I think partly because of its overuse in slick and sometimes questionable marketing. The use of the term to get to a point, as opposed to just focusing on the point. I love that the responsibility and intense love is being recognized, but the term for whatever reason really rubs me the wrong way for no good reason. I think it's because it's not truly about the responsibility and love, it's more often about making a point and/or a buck.


Science is catching up to what we've always known, but I will never call myself a pet parent!

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@dogthusiast So you react to "pet parent" the way I react to "fur baby", LOL! I was thinking about how funny it is where we draw lines, and also why reactions to these terms can be visceral -- still no clue!

I dislike using "dog owner" as a means of identifying who I'm talking about in a post, and this seemed to be the least awkward in the flow of writing, with guardian being more of a legal term exuding no warmth or emotion of any kind and companion just too 19th century. I don't mind dog mom and tried dog people for awhile, but that didn't flow well in all instances either. 


I thank you for your honest opinion on the term -- I look forward to seeing how all this shakes out =) Whatever happens with that, aren't all these scientific confirmations exciting! Thanks for stopping by.

dogthusiast
dogthusiast

@MaryEHaight Oh yes - babies. And doggies. Gosh almost anything diminutive. What happened when I was growing up?! :)


I also dislike "owner", although I do find myself using it by default occasionally. I do worry about starting to inadvertently use "pet parent" in the same way, someday. I was thinking about this last night, and how I started using corporate terms around the office after a certain number of years because they were used so often around me. I heard myself asking "What's the ask?" one day and almost puked a little in my mouth. I'm hoping that the same won't happen with some of these terms. 


At least there's (usually) a delete key when it comes to blogging. Oh how I wish I had one of those for my mouth sometimes!



MeganHughes
MeganHughes

Parents, maybe, caregivers, certainly. I find some people get a little bent out of shape when you mention the word "parent" - especially if they perceive it as a comparison to parenting human children. And while I don't mind being called a dog Mom, telling my dog that Daddy's home just doesn't quite fit for me. It's easier to call him PackMan. But that's just me.

Funny thing is, before our dog (14 mos) I've had, and have, cats my whole life. The relationship with cats I have found completely different. Both nurture, both are powerful emotional bonds, but the dog-human relationship is ... well I don't know quite how to quantify it just yet. But wow. It's deep :)

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@MeganHughes I've had negative responses to the pet parent phrase too, and I've been interested to find that most people who don't like it are those with children. Men appear to be shy of using this phrase also -- purely anecdotal info =)

I got my first dog after having cats in my 20s -- it is a shocker of a difference in my experience also, and "deep" is an excellent descriptor! Thanks for joining in Megan!


MeganHughes
MeganHughes

@MaryEHaight @MeganHughes Mary, the funny part of this (at least for me) is that after also raising a child, I think there are far more similarities than differences. I have and continue to draw on my experiences as a human parent in relation to our dog

ValSilver
ValSilver

I think of myself as a pet guardian or parent. Like all relationships, my relationship with my dog is give and take, it is mutual. Calling people 'owners' makes animals property, which they aren't, anymore than our children are.

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@ValSilver Hello and welcome to the conversation Val. Love having a positive, cooperative relationship with my dogs...it's so rewarding --  thanks for popping in =)

Tales From The Back Road
Tales From The Back Road

Pet parent for sure. It is very much like having a couple of kids, with two different personalities and needs. 

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@roxythetravelingdog So true! I've only had multiple dogs once -- then it was three -- and wow, even though pretty well-behaved, it required a lot of time and attention to very different needs. Thanks for stopping by, Mary!

somethingwagging
somethingwagging

Training dogs to lie calmly in an MRI machine is such a wonderful boon to science. I can't wait to see all the new things we learn.


For my part, I hate the term owner. But I don't personally feel comfortable with pet parent either. I've never felt very nurtured by my own parents so I guess I have some baggage there. 


For now, I refer to Honey as my dog and myself as her person. Maybe it's not very expressive. But it works for me.

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@somethingwagging I was serious Pamela, no judging here :) I've always wondered if thinking of yourself as an "owner" put a psychological barrier between you and the dog, but when I thought about it a little more it came down to "it depends". Not very satisfying. I think being anyone's "person" carries a great deal of meaning and is a very important role.

 I recall roughly the first time I considered that the words we use hold a great deal of power in shaping not only our lives but our experience of the world. That's when I stopped using "it" when referring to animals. They are not objects and damn the grammar police on this one :D


Thanks for speaking up!



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