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Dog–human behavioral synchronization: family dogs synchronize their behavior with child family members


Research on dog social cognition has received widespread attention. However, the vast majority of this research has focused on dogs’ relationships and responsiveness towards adult humans. While little research has considered dog–child interactions from a cognitive perspective, how dogs perceive and socially engage with children is critical to fully understand their interspecific social cognition. In several recent studies, dogs have been shown to exhibit behavioral synchrony, often associated with increased affiliation and social responsiveness, with their adult owners. In the current study, we asked if family dogs would also exhibit behavioral synchrony with child family members. Our findings demonstrated that dogs engaged in all three measured components of behavioral synchrony with their child partner—activity synchrony (p < 0.0001), proximity (p < 0.0001), and orientation (p = 0.0026)—at levels greater than would be expected by chance. The finding that family dogs synchronize their behavior with that of child family members may shed light on how dogs perceive familiar children. Aspects of pet dog responsiveness to human actions previously reported in studies with adult humans appear to generalize to cohabitant children in at least some cases. However, some differences between our study outcomes and those reported in the dog–adult human literature were also observed. Given the prevalence of families with both children and dogs, and the growing popularity of child-focused animal-assisted interventions, knowledge about how dogs respond to the behavior of human children may also help inform and improve safe and successful dog–child interactions.

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We are grateful to all of the families who volunteered to participate in this research. We also want to thank Holly Duvall, Darren Sung, Chloe Simpson, and Emmy Chien for their assistance with data collection and video coding. Thank you also to Dr. Charlotte Duranton for discussions and guidance on data analysis.


Funding for this research came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R21HD091895, the Samaritan Foundation John C. Erkkila, M.D. Endowment for Health and Human Performance, and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute HAB18-027.

Author information




MU and MM conceived and planned this study, and all authors carried out the study. SW and MU analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript, with contributions from MM.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Monique A. R. Udell.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics approval

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) of Oregon State University approved all methods and procedures for this study (IRB #7848; ACUP #4898). The procedures used in this study adhere to the tenets of the Declaration of Helsinki.

Consent to participate

All child–dog dyads participated on a voluntary basis. Written informed consent was obtained from the parents/guardians of all child participants and owners of all dogs, and assent was obtained from all of the children explicitly indicating their understanding and desire to participate in the research.

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All authors consented to the publication of this work.

Availability of data and material

The datasets generated during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Wanser, S.H., MacDonald, M. & Udell, M.A.R. Dog–human behavioral synchronization: family dogs synchronize their behavior with child family members. Anim Cogn 24, 747–752 (2021).

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  • Human
  • Animal interaction
  • Behavioral synchronization
  • Synchrony
  • Dog
  • Family
  • Children