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 ( 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



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