Similar neural mechanisms?

Similar neural mechanisms?

In dogs, just like in human infants, attachment is associated with reward-related brain responses to the caregiver’s speech, according to a new study published recently in NeuroImage. Combining behavioural and brain data, Hungarian researchers at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, the MTE-ELTE Lendület Neuroethology of Communication Research Group and the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group revealed exciting similarities between dog-owner and infant-mother attachment.

Companion dogs develop a strong relationship with their owners: they do not just love their human caregivers, they are attached to them. That is, they use the owner as a secure base at unfamiliar places and as a safe haven in case of danger, just as we see it in infant-mother relationships. In children’s brains, attachment is associated with reward-responses. But what brain mechanisms can be associated with attachment in dogs?

To answer this question, researchers in Hungary combined behavioural and brain data of family pets. Dogs’ attachment behaviour towards the owners was assessed with the Strange Situation Test, and their brain activity was measured via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In the MRI, dogs listened to praising and neutral (meaningless for dogs) speech spoken by their owner and a familiar person.

“To study the brain mechanisms behind dog-owner attachment is particularly exciting, because  it can help to understand how similar this unique bond between individuals of different species can be to other well-known relationships between conspecifics (e.g. infant-mother attachment). Some years ago we discovered that dog brains are sensitive to verbal praises, but it remained unexplored how the relationship with the speaker affects this sensitivity.” – Anna Gábor, lead author of the study, explains.

The current results show that the reward center of the dog brain is more sensitive to the owner’s than to a familiar person’s praise. Moreover, more attached dogs showed greater neural reward-response for the owner’s voice. These findings mean that (1) dogs can recognise their owner’s voice, and (2) the owner’s voice is more rewarding for more attached dogs even if it has no praising content.

“The basic function of attachment is to keep the dependent individual (infant, dog) in the proximity of the caregiver. Our results point out that in dogs, just like in infants, not only positive interactions with the caregiver, but even listening to their neutral voice is rewarding.” – explains Márta Gácsi, last author of the study. 

These findings reveal that dog-owner and infant-mother relationships are more similar than previously thought.

This study was published in NeuroImage titled “Social relationship-dependent neural response to speech in dogs”, written by Anna Gábor, Attila Andics, Ádám Miklósi, Kálmán Czeibert, Cecília Carreiro and Márta Gácsi. 


The study was funded by:

Eötvös Loránd University; Eötvös Loránd Research Network; National Research, Development and Innovation Office; Ministry for Innovation and Technology; European Research Council; National Brain Research Program; Stipendium Hungaricum Program

Video abstract about the research:

Link to the original publication: