Perhaps the phrase “copycat” is misplaced. A recent study done by researchers from Oregon State University revealed how dogs mimic human behavior, including the finding that dogs more closely emulate the behavior of adults than children.
While the various positive impacts pets have on children are well-known—including aiding with social development and promoting exercise—there’s not a lot of research for the opposite: how dogs engage with children.
Monique Udell, the lead author on the study, found that dogs are responsive to children and synchronize behavior with kids, which indicates a foundation for building strong bonds and indicates a positive affiliation. However, dogs still mimic adult behaviors with more frequency.
“One interesting thing we have observed is that dogs are matching their child’s behavior less frequently than what we have seen between dogs and adult caretakers, which suggests that while they may view children as social companions, there are also some differences that we need to understand better," said Udell.
To conduct the study, the Udell—along with co-authors Shelby Wanser and Megan MacDonald—invited 30 children between 8 and 17 years old (83 percent had a developmental disability) to take part in the study with their family dog. The recruits were placed in a large, empty room with color-coded tape lines on the floor. The children were given instructions on how to walk on the lines with their dog off-leash.
Research focused on three areas: activity synchrony, proximity and orientation. Key findings from the study include:
• Dogs and children were actively in sync 60.2 percent of the time, with dogs moving an average 73.1 percent of the time when their children were moving and remained stationary 41.2 percent of the time with their child;
• The humans and animals stay in proximity of 1 meter of each other 27.1 percent of the time; and
• Children and dogs were oriented in the same direction for 33.5 percent of the time.
However, those findings were significantly lower than other researchers who conducted similar studies with adults and dogs—in those cases, the human and animal remained in sync 81.8 percent of the time and proximity 72.9 percent. Currently, there’s no data on orientation direction for adults and dogs.
“What we are finding is that kids are very capable of training dogs, and that dogs are paying attention to the kids and can learn from them,” said Udell. “Sometimes we don’t give children and dogs enough credit—our research suggests that with some guidance we can provide important and positive learning experiences for our kids and our dogs starting at a much earlier age, something that can make a world of difference to the lives of both.”