Science

Go Ahead, Call Your Dog Your “Fur Baby”

Cognitive scientists can point to many, many similarities between canines and human offspring.

A dog rests its head on a baby's shoulder.
Przemysław Iciak/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When our daughter was born, we found ourselves using the words puppy and baby interchangeably.

My husband and I both grew up in households with dogs, and now have a 35-pound black dog with a white chest named Scout. We’d say things like “Oh, the puppy is hungry,” meaning our infant, or “The baby needs a walk,” referring to the dog. We’d often call the dog “our toddler.” Of course, it caused confusion sometimes because we’d have to clarify whether we mean the human baby or the four-footed one.

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I’d occasionally refer to the pediatrician’s office as the veterinary office by accident. I’d joke that our approach to our daughter’s health was like our dog’s—is her energy good, is her nose cold, and does she have a happy disposition? OK, then she’s fine. Ultimately, I think we both hoped that we’d instill a love of dogs into our daughter.

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But as our baby—the Homo sapiens one—got older and more aware of the world, I notice some surprising similarities between her and our furry pup. Both of them possessed a tendency toward devious problem-solving, whether it was the dog climbing on a chair to access the garbage can more effectively or the baby figuring out how to escape from her playpen. Perhaps our mix-up of language was not just an affectation but rooted in something firmer. After all, I’m not the only one who refers to their pet as their “fur child” or puts animal ears on a toddler. In fact, recent research suggests that in terms of cognition, dogs and children have a lot in common.

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For starters, neither dogs nor small children can talk (at least not in full sentences). But you can explain things to them and ask them to do things as well, as Daphna Buchsbaum, director of both the Computational Cognitive Development Lab and the Canine Cognition Lab at Brown University, notes. Dogs also show attachment to their owners, as babies do with their parents, Buchsbaum explains; both expect social engagement from the caregiver, and both respond to eye contact.

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Dogs can be surprisingly good judges of character. Buchsbaum was an author on a February study that explored how dogs were able to differentiate between humans who provide them with accurate data versus those who do not. In the study, a person (an “informant”), would point to a cup where a treat might be located. The incorrect informant would point to a cup without the treat, while the accurate informant would point to the true treat. The question was whether dogs could learn which informant would consistently share the treat location. The work “found that dogs are in that case able to follow the more accurate person” and that children, too, have the “sophisticated ability to understand essentially who is a good person to learn from,” Buchsbaum said.

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Dogs also have a basic understanding of object specifics, Buchsbaum said, which means understanding object permanence and solidity (i.e., objects cannot pass through one another). As for children, “depending on what measures you use, even very young infants (possibly newborns) have some expectations about how objects should behave, though this continues to develop in toddlerhood and beyond,” she explained. From about 12 to 18 months old, children “spend a lot of time experimenting with and learning about object properties (think about how much they love to throw things!),” Buchsbaum told me via email.

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Canines don’t have opposable thumbs, but the way they learn about other things is similar to the way that young humans learn. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, noted in an email interview that dogs can learn words through fast mapping, like children. “So rather than being taught every single word, these dogs learn by a process of exclusion,” he explained. For instance, say there’s a red ball and a toy car on a table, and your child knows the word ball but not car. If you ask them to get the car, they’ll grab the object on the table that is not a ball.

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Some dogs show a remarkable ability to understand language. The border collie Chaser was renowned for knowing more than 1,000 words, according to NPR, which is about the average number of words a 3-year-old child knows. And researchers at the University of California–San Diego are studying dogs that seem to be able to communicate concepts with the use of buttons that say words aloud, like “more, scritches, now.” Of course, dogs do not have full language skills like an understanding of grammar, Buchsbaum cautioned.

But it’s not all about cognition. As much as some people might cringe when a kidless person refers to their dog as their “child,” our love for our dogs is comparable to our love for our children in some senses. Evan MacLean, director of Arizona Canine Cognition Center, noted that domestication may have selected for “juvenile characteristics of wolves.” Wolf puppies tend to have relatively big eyes, short snouts, floppy ears—familiar attributes found in many young and adult breeds of dogs—that adult wolves don’t have. These traits make them appear forever immature. “Dogs are like Peter Pan,” MacLean said. “They get older, but they never grow up,” and they’re kind of “playing a trick on our brain” to see them as babies that need to be taken care of. A 2014 study published in PLOS One, for which researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital took brain scans of women looking at pictures of their children and dogs, found that both instances triggers similar emotional and brain responses.

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If you’re a parent (of any kind!) you may have felt the happy high that comes with staring at those big eyes and snuggly little body. “Parents and their new babies have a physiological mechanism called the oxytocin loop to help them bond when babies are not very verbal and extremely labor-intensive,” Hare said, “Researchers have found that dogs can insert themselves into this oxytocin loop so that when a dog stares at their owner, and vice versa, the oxytocin in it creates a similar kind of oxytocin loop as parents have with their new babies.”

The inherent similarities between dogs and children can even point to new research avenues. Buschbaum is planning on studying “joint attention” in dogs. It’s considered an important part of toddler development, when a child will want to engage a second person around an object like a toy. For any dog owner, that behavior may sound really familiar—you’re playing fetch, and your pup returns a ball to someone else to get them in on the fun. Ultimately, these studies help us better understand how cognition and intelligence work in general.

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But of course, it’s important to remember that there are critical differences between dogs and humans. Buchsbaum pointed out that as humans, we undervalue how dogs might see the world differently from us. We see the world primarily through vision, like our primate relatives, but dogs rely more on scent.

Someday my child will hopefully learn how to speak 20,000–35,000 words, compose essays, care for herself, and cook her own dinner. Our dog, on the other hand, will always rely on us for the rest of her life. In that sense, she’s even more infantile than an infant—she’ll always be our baby.

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