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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Do dogs need a secure base?

Children look to their parents for security and for cues about how to react. Not only do children resist separation from their caretakers, but they also use those caretakers as a ‘secure base’ from which to explore their environments. Do dogs do the same thing with their owners? That’s the burning question addressed by Lisa Horn, Ludwig Huber and Friederike Range of the University of Vienna (and also from the Clever Dog Lab Society, which has to be the world’s greatest place to work).

Most young children are more willing to explore their environment, play with toys or tackle problem-solving tasks when their parents are close by. Like young children, dogs are wholly reliant on the adult humans around them. To test whether dogs also use their owners as a secure exploration base, the researchers presented the dogs with food-hiding toys under three experimental conditions: the owner was absent, the owner was present but blindfolded and thus did not engage with the dog at all (silent), or the owner was present and encouraging the dog to interact with the toy. Only by persistently manipulating the toy (apparatus) with their paws and mouth could the dog gain access to the food treat. 

You can see the set up here:

Figure 2 Schematic representation of the experimental set-up.
At the beginning of each trial, the dog was released by the experimenter from the release point, which was 2.5 m away from the toy. During each trial the experimenter stood on the right side of door 1 – timing the trial with a clock on the opposite wall. The owner either sat on the designated chair on the left side of door 1 or was in the adjacent room. 

Dogs were coded for time spent manipulating the toy (though not for successfully prizing the food out of it--this wasn’t a test for skill or intelligence) and time spent in proximity to either owner or experimenter (marked as having its head and at least one paw within the dotted lines).

Here were the results:

Figure 3 Duration of manipulating the apparatus –

It’s not surprising that the dogs worked on the toy puzzles longer when their owners were actively encouraging them to do so. But notice that the difference between the ‘silent’ and ‘encouraging’ owners wasn’t nearly as great as the differences between those conditions and the ones with the absent owners. Dogs also spent far more time close to the experimenter (who completely ignored the dogs and only watched the clock) when their owners were absent.

This seems like a clear indication that dogs are using their owners as secure bases for exploration. Except for one thing. Look what happens when the researchers substituted a blind-folded stranger (replaced owner) for the owner.

Figure 5 Duration of manipulating the apparatus –


As you can see, when a silent stranger took the owners’ place in the experiment, the dogs spent an intermediate amount of time manipulating the toy. Thus, the dogs showed a range of behaviors, displaying the least confidence when no one was in the chair and the most confidence when their own owners were encouraging them to keep interacting with the toy.

This could mean that any human can more or less serve as a secure base. Or it could be that dogs don’t use secure bases in the same way that children do. In any case, the authors suggest that, going forward, other canine researchers recognize that their test subjects might be affected by the presence or absence of their owners.

Horn, L., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2013). The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task PLoS ONE, 8 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065296.