Although he recently had his first senior lab tests, I often refer to my nine-year-old dog as a “perpetual toddler.” Responsibilities like teaching, feeding, and cleaning up after a pet can feel like raising a young child, which may explain the recent popularity of phrases like “fur baby” and “pet parent.”
Plus, it’s hard to miss the number of emerging brands with products like fresh food, clothing, DNA testing, daycare, and insurance, all for our furry friends. The comparison to parenting may be closer to reality than a glib remark – and science backs that up.
Before I upset a bunch of human parents (of humans), hear me out. Having a pet can be challenging and rewarding, but it’s not the same as having children who will someday need “the talk” or ask you to pay their college tuition. (I’ll take the shedding and vet visits any day.)
Though, as we continue to understand the importance of talking to our pets and what they can teach us, acting as parents may make sense, even to some of the naysayers out there. Let’s dive into one study that explores pet parenting styles similar to those of humans — that can influence their development, too.
What are parenting styles?
Parenting styles refer to how parents raise and interact with their children based on their approach to control and communication. These typically fall into four categories: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. Each of these can impact the development and well-being of children.
Is there a connection between parenting styles and dog behavior?
One study sought to answer this question, observing 48 dogs (with their owners) in a series of behavioral tests: problem-solving, attachment security, and sociability.
They concluded that the quality and style of pet parenting could accurately predict canine cognitive abilities, demonstrating the human influence on how dogs interact with the world.
While they didn’t find a notable difference between authoritative and permissive attachment styles nor permissive and authoritarian styles, there was one key finding:
Dogs with authoritative owners tend to be more secure, more social, and better problem-solvers.
Simply put, authoritative owners have high expectations and responsiveness. These owners are nurturing and supportive but know when to be strict and set limits.
Compare that to authoritarian owners (similar names, very different meanings), who also have high expectations but are less responsive to their dog's emotional needs, or permissive owners who are lower in both categories. You can see trends in how dogs and owners interact.
Every pet has a unique life experience, especially those shaped by different owners and backgrounds. While this may not always apply to every dog, it’s worth considering as we decide how to parent our pets.
Still, this is not the only test of pet behavior and intelligence. The first was in 1976, and our understanding of these animals has grown since.
Interested in testing your own dog? Try these brain games for smart quality time.
How smart are our pets, anyway?
The consensus is that dogs are similarly capable as children aged 2 to 2.5 years. See?! Toddlers!
The average dog can learn 165 to 250 words. That’s not too different from children, who learn between 200 and 1,000 words by two years old. The age and breed of a dog can shift these numbers in either direction, just like a child at different stages of development.
There’s also that age-old question of whether dogs or cats are smarter, and while I’m not here to stir that pot — I’m still worried about those human parents with human children — it’s worth seeing how much we’ve learned about our four-legged companions.
On average, dogs have about 530 million neurons in the cortex, compared to 250 million for cats, but this animal-to-brain size relationship isn’t always so obvious. The largest animal brain studied was a brown bear’s, about ten times the size of a cat’s but with the same number of neurons. Neat.
Parallels in parenting
Considering how much our animals mean to us, it’s essential to understand them in return. Whether you call your dog or cat your “baby” and yourself their “parent” or stick with traditional terminology, we can all agree that we shape each other’s experiences in meaningful ways.
Dylan M. Austin is a highly caffeinated writer and creator in Seattle. When offline, he's hanging out with his Chihuahua Terrier rescue, Will, and adding to his increasingly excessive houseplant collection.