Yes! Your Dog is Like Your Child

by Charlotte Lasek for PSY 377


They have been the butt of multiple jokes throughout the years and are often used as the human example of the word “frivolous.” Think of Paris Hilton and her Pomeranians, Mini Pinschers, Teacup Yorkies and Chihuahuas – a brigade of pocket-sized dogs dressed to the nines in designer clothing. It seems ridiculous to spend large sums of money on a pet, especially if those expenses are not medical related. Yet, there are many celebrities and everyday citizens that justify purchasing a mini dog-mansion for their canine companions. And although these people seem to have a large disconnect with the rest of the world, their motivations may be reasonable.

As it turns out, humans may have an evolutionary predisposition to bond with dogs, a relationship that is estimated to be between 15,000 to 30,000 years old. In a 2014 research study conducted in Boston, Massachusetts in association with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, this bond is compared to that of a mother and her child. The study recruited females with a child between 2-10 years old and a dog they have had for over 2 years. They placed the participants in an fMRI machine, which is used to track which parts of the brain are active at a given time. When in the machine, the researchers showed the mothers pictures of their own dog and child, and then pictures of an unfamiliar child and dog.

The results painted an interesting picture of the strong attachment between humankind and canines. The mothers displayed activity in similar areas of the brain when looking at pictures of their own child and dog. There were four main regions of activation that overlapped, each pertaining to reward, memory, and/or emotion. In fact, there were more similarities between a mother’s reaction to her child and dog than differences. So what’s the significance of this? It helps us begin to uncover the depth of human compassion and what fosters our motivations. This study shows that a human’s attachment with their dog is as natural as a mother’s to her child. Perhaps then, it isn’t so crazy for Paris Hilton to spend copious amounts of money on her canine companions. After all, she has an evolutionary disposition to do so.



3 thoughts on “Yes! Your Dog is Like Your Child

  1. What about the a reverse experiment? In one study, a group of researchers trained dogs to lie in an fMRI so their brain activity could be studied under different conditions. They found an increased activity in the dog reward pathway when they were given positive praise with a positive vocal intonation – higher pitched with more fluctuations in tone. There was not as much activity when positive praise was given with a neutral vocal intonation, or when neutral praise was given with positive vocal intonation, suggesting that dogs respond to the content of the words as well. Wouldn’t it be neat to show them pictures of their human and see if they get reward pathway activation?

    The study was published in Science, called “Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs.”


  2. Another fun study I just saw – The caudate, a region associated with reward, lights up in an fMRI of dog brains only when the scent of a familiar human is presented, but not when an unfamiliar human or another dog is presented.

    The study is called “Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors” and was published in Behavioural Processes in 2015.


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