Dogs have been mankind’s best friends since the beginning of human civilization. If you’re a dog parent, you likely share an unbreakable bond with your furry companion. You may even consider your dog like your own child. But why is this? Why do dog owners form such deep connections with their pets?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Dogs exhibit childlike traits that trigger parental instincts in their owners, like needing care, affection, and guidance. The unconditional love from a dog also mimics the parent-child dynamic.

In this article, we’ll explore the psychological and scientific reasons why dog owners form familial bonds with their pets.

Dogs Display Infantile Traits That Appeal To Human Instincts

Dogs are physically juvenile their whole lives

Compared to wolves, dogs retain many juvenile physical traits into adulthood. Their skulls are rounder, their snouts are shorter, and their ears are floppy instead of pointy. This phenomenon is called “neoteny” – the retention of youthful features. It’s one reason why dogs appear so cute to us.

Their puppy-like faces appeal to our instinct to nurture and protect young, vulnerable creatures. Studies show that we perceive animals with infantile features as more appealing and caring.

In addition, most dog breeds do not reach full size until 12-24 months, remaining adorably gangly and awkward as “teenagers” for a significant period. Large breeds like Great Danes may take up to 3 years to finish growing. Dogs also play enthusiastically throughout life – another juvenile trait.

Their neotenic faces and bodies cue our brains to see them as perpetual puppies.

Dogs behave in childlike, dependent ways

Dogs exhibit many behaviors reminiscent of human children. They are playful, energetic, and often mischievous. They seek attention and affection frequently. Submissive behaviors like rolling over to expose their bellies make them seem harmless and non-threatening.

Their reliance on us for food, shelter, and guidance also parallels a child/parent relationship.

Additionally, dogs do not develop complex social hierarchies and relationships like wolves. They remain socially “immature” with more limited interactions. This suits our instinct to protect and nurture a helpless being. We do not feel as threatened by an animal demanding less autonomy.

Dogs have facial expressions that resemble human infants

Dogs can make facial expressions that mimic human emotions. Their eyes tend to look larger in proportion to their heads, similar to human babies. When dogs raise their inner eyebrows to make “puppy dog eyes,” it triggers a neural response in humans that activates our caregiving impulses.

The reaction resembles our response to human infant facial expressions.

Some research also suggests that the presence of a furrow between a dog’s eyebrows when it makes certain expressions is analogous to the fat folds human infants have. This feature makes their faces appear more juvenile and activates our nurturing instincts.

The dog expressions take advantage of our innate desire to care for creatures with childlike features.

Caring For a Dog Fulfills The Need To Nurture

Taking care of a dog satisfies the parental urge

Raising a pet dog allows owners to satisfy intrinsic parenting needs like nurturing, teaching, and guiding another being. Similar to caring for a human child, dog ownership involves providing food, shelter, exercise, affection, and structure on a routine basis.

Making decisions for the dog’s wellbeing and future gives owners a meaningful sense of purpose and responsibility. This fulfills the human need for purpose beyond the self, known as generativity, which is associated with life satisfaction and better mental health in parents.

Furthermore, the unconditional affection dogs show their owners enhances feelings of being valued and depended upon.

Training a dog requires guidance and structure

Similar to parenting children, owning dogs necessitates ongoing education and continued boundaries. Successfully house training puppies, teaching cues like “sit” and “stay”, and correcting unwanted behaviors involves consistent positive reinforcement and patience over weeks or months.

Providing proper outlets for dogs’ energy and curiosity through walks, play time, chew toys etc. allows owners to guide their pet’s development, preventing anxiety or destructive tendencies. Developing this structure and gently correcting dogs mimics parenting toddlers – a process fulfilling for those desiring responsibility over another being.

And as dogs learn and demonstrate good manners, owners feel pride and accomplishment like parental milestones in child development.

Dogs are always in need of their owner’s time and attention

Unlike human children who eventually reach independence, dogs remain fully dependent on their human caregivers lifelong – always needing shelter, food, exercise, affection, healthcare, and supervision.

While children move out of constant parental demand, owning dogs means near daily effort and attentiveness as the animal ages. This perpetual sense of being needed helps owners feel a sense of purpose.

One 2020 study surveying over 2000 dog owners found 40% considered their pet “practice” for having a child one day. And interestingly, attachment levels were comparable between dog owners and parents. Ultimately for empty nesters, singles, and seniors – caring for a dependent dog can provide meaningful responsibility and routine attention lacking otherwise.

The Bond Between Dog and Owner Mimics Parent-Child Attachment

Dogs give their owners unconditional love and acceptance

Just like between a parent and child, the bond between a dog and its owner is built on unconditional love. Dogs offer affection freely and don’t judge their owners for their flaws. In fact, a recent study found that gazing into your dog’s eyes releases oxytocin, the “love hormone,” in both owner and pet.

This chemical reaction helps strengthen the attachment between human and dog.

Dogs are always excited to see their owners after even a short separation. Their enthusiastic greetings and “hero worshipping” gaze make owners feel valued and important. Dogs also seem to sense when owners are feeling down and will offer comfort and affection.

This unconditional acceptance can provide much-needed emotional support during stressful times.

Owners feel responsible for their dog’s wellbeing and safety

Dog owners feel a strong sense of responsibility and protectiveness over their furry companions, similar to how parents feel about their children. Owners make sure their dogs are properly fed, sheltered, groomed, exercised, and cared for medically.

Making sacrifices and lifestyle adjustments to better care for a dog is common among devoted owners.

Owners also worry about their dog’s safety and become distressed if separated for too long. According to a 2009 study, functional MRI scans showed that a dog owner’s brain responds similarly when presented with images of both injured dogs and injured children.

This underscores the deep emotional attachment and instinct to nurture that dog owners feel.

Dogs are loyal and dependent on their caregivers

Dogs display their attachment to their owners through their loyal and dependent behavior. Like children, dogs eagerly anticipate their owner’s arrival home. They follow owners from room to room and anxiously pace and whine when separated from them.

Dogs will often choose to sleep touching or very near their owners at night.

A 2015 study found that when dog owners left the room, their dogs’ stress hormones spiked. Upon the owner’s return, the dog’s stress hormones declined, underscoring the strong calming effect an owner’s presence has. Dogs clearly depend on their human caregivers for comfort and security.

Oxytocin and Other Hormones Cement the Parent-Child Connection

Oxytocin is released when owners interact with dogs

Similar to between parents and children, oxytocin, the “love hormone”, is released when dog owners interact with their pets, such as when stroking, cuddling, or gazing into their eyes. This hormone promotes bonding and feelings of trust and comfort.

Research shows that oxytocin levels in owners and their dogs increase after positive interactions like playing or walking together. Just looking at your dog stimulates oxytocin release!

Vasopressin and dopamine reinforce bonding

Like oxytocin, vasopressin is another hormone involved in social bonding and pair-bond formation in humans. Studies reveal that vasopressin receptors in the reward center of dog owners’ brains light up when they see their dogs, similar to a parent seeing his/her child.

This suggests vasopressin helps cement the owner-dog bond.

Dopamine release is also associated with human-dog interactions and serves to reinforce the bonding process. Petting or playing with your dog boosts dopamine levels, making you feel happy and rewarding the bonding behaviors.

Cortisol levels in owners and dogs sync up

Research shows that dog owners and their pets exhibit synchronized changes in the stress hormone cortisol. When owners experience stressful events, their cortisol levels increase in parallel with their dogs.

This hormonal synchronization reflects the emotional attachment and connection between owner and dog.

Like with parent-child relationships, the powerful hormonal response of oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine and cortisol helps explain the strong attachment and affection that grows between owners and their canine companions.

Dogs Can Fulfill Emotional Needs in ‘Empty Nest’ Parents

Dogs provide comfort after children leave home

When the last child leaves the nest, many parents struggle with feelings of loneliness and loss of purpose. Caring for a pet dog can help fill this emotional void. Studies show that adopting a dog after kids move out leads to decreased depression and anxiety in older adults.

The companionship of a loving pet provides comfort and an outlet for nurturing instincts.

Dogs are always excited to see you, unlike brooding teenagers. Petting a dog has been shown to release oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, triggering feelings of relaxation and pleasure. Taking your dog on daily walks also boosts endorphins and forges social connections with other pet owners.

In these ways, dogs can ease the transition to empty nest status.

Caring for a dog combats loneliness

Feelings of loneliness can intensify when children leave home. Research indicates about 46% of older empty nesters report frequent loneliness. Owning a dog drastically reduces loneliness levels in this population.

Dogs provide constant companionship and have been called “social lubricants” for their ability to spark human connections.

Simply petting a dog for a few minutes releases hormones that elevate mood. Dog owners get more exercise by walking their pets, leading to natural conversations with neighbors that further reduce isolation. Taking a dog to the park allows for enjoyable interactions.

In multiple ways, dogs lessen the loneliness empty nesters often experience.

Dogs give older adults a sense of purpose

Losing the day-to-day responsibilities of child-rearing can leave empty nesters feeling adrift. Caring for a pet dog provides renewed meaning and purpose. Remembering to feed, walk, and play with a pet establishes a nurturing routine. Training a puppy also builds a sense of accomplishment.

In a recent WebMD survey, over 75% of older adults reported that owning a dog gave them “a sense of purpose and responsibility”. Feelings of boredom and aimlessness decreased, as daily life revolved around meeting the dog’s needs.

Additionally, dogs encourage laughter and silliness, boosting mood and fending off depression.


In summary, dog owners form profound attachments with their pets for a variety of psychological and biological reasons. From fulfilling nurturing instincts to releasing bonding hormones, dogs tap into the same mechanisms that create human parental bonds.

For many people, dogs truly are part of the family. So next time someone says they love their dog like a child, believe them – the science is on their side!

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