Does Your Dog Prefer You Over Anyone Else? It's Complicated.

Whether your pet wants to be around its owner or a stranger depends on the situation, a new study says.

Will Your Dog Pick You Over a Stranger?

Does your dog really want to hang out with you instead of anyone else? We like to think so, but research shows that it's a little more complicated.

Scientists already knew that dogs interact with objects and explore a room more in the presence of their owner than with a stranger. And while you might not have felt you needed academic research to validate this, pets greet their owners longer and more enthusiastically than non-owners after a period of separation.

A new study has shown, though, that how dogs behave with their owners vs. strangers may depend on the context and the task. (Read more about why dogs are so friendly.)

A dog looks up at its owner in Washington, D.C.

Researchers in Florida gave pet dogs recruited from homes a choice of getting petted by their owner or by a stranger in different situations.

One group was tested with their owner and a stranger in a familiar place: a room in their own home. Another was tested with their owner and a stranger in an unfamiliar place. The dogs were free to do whatever they wanted; if they approached, the person petted them for as long as they were close.

The results bring to mind the old real estate cliché: Location, location, location!

Still The One

In an unfamiliar place, dogs spent more of their interaction time with their owners—nearly 80 percent. But in a familiar place, the animals spent more with the stranger—around 70 percent, according to the paper, published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

Dogs Change Facial Expression When Humans Pay Attention

Should your feelings be hurt that you don't always come first? Probably not, says lead author Erica Feuerbacher, now assistant professor of companion animal behavior and welfare at Virginia Tech. (See our favorite dog pictures.)

"In the stressful, unfamiliar context, we see that you are still important—you're your dog's number one."

Julie Hecht, a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, notes by email that the study "joins a growing body of research finding that context and environment can affect dog behavior, preferences, and perspectives."

"In new places or during moments of discomfort, dogs can be inclined to seek out their owners. When comfortable, dogs are more likely to interact with unfamiliar people. People living with dogs might observe this behavior in their own dogs!"

After her first capybara died of liver failure, Melanie Typaldos bought Garibaldi Rous. The Texan was attracted to the giant rodents, which tend to die in captivity, after seeing wild ones in Venezuela.
Florida animal trainer Pamela Rosaire Zoppe bought Chance from pet owners who could no longer keep him. He now appears in Hollywood films. “Chimps are so intelligent that they get bored,” she says.
Sasha, a cougar, is “the love of my life,” says Mario Infanti, who underwent more than a thousand hours of training before he acquired his first wild cats. The Florida musician had Sasha declawed when she was a month old, but “she can still bite.”
A Burmese python entwines Albert Killian in the Florida home he shares with 60 snakes. Tags noting the proper antivenom—and the nearest hospital that carries it—are posted next to venomous pets.
John Matus bought Boo Boo impulsively as a cub. Last summer the Ohio man gave her to a wildlife sanctuary. “She needs to be with her own kind,” he says. “It’s a lonely life.”
Shawn Geary and Allo. Shawn is an IT professional. His grandmother had skunks that he played with as a child. His wife Carole always wanted one.
Bobbi Phelan bought a patas monkey in part because they tend to avoid conflict. Even so, Eujo once got loose and scratched Phelan’s son and bit her dog. Eujo’s cage is attached to the living room of Phelan’s Indiana home, with a pet door leading outside to a larger enclosure.
Ohio veterinarian Melanie Butera took in Dillie after the blind farm deer’s mother rejected her. Dillie used to sleep with Butera but now has her own room. “She’s treated like a princess,” says Butera.
Alison Pascoe Friedman, a zoologist, acquired Amelia in 1980 as a rescue and trained her for a behavioral research project. When the project ended, she brought the capuchin monkey to her home in New York. Amelia, 45, died in her sleep after this photo was taken.

“My life is completely about the animals,” says Leslie-Ann Rush, a Florida horse trainer. “I rarely leave them overnight or take a vacation.” She raised her kangaroos and lemurs from infancy.
Tap images for captions

No Stranger Danger

Study leader Feuerbacher agrees that in a familiar place, the owner's presence probably helps make dog feel safe and comfortable enough to spend time with a stranger.

"While we didn't test that specifically, I think it's a reasonable assumption," Feuerbach says. Similar to previous research, "they're readier to go and explore their environment." (See "Can Dogs Feel Our Emotions? Yawn Study Suggests Yes.")

The study also tested how shelter dogs and owned dogs interacted with two strangers at a time. All showed a preference to be petted by one stranger rather than the other—though the experts don't know why.

Consistent with previous research showing that shelter dogs start to treat a person differently from a new stranger after just three 10-minute interactions, in fact this study suggests it happens within the first ten minutes.

This is reassuring information for anyone who's considering taking in a previously owned dog. While losing a home is no picnic, they readily form new bonds.

"Separation and the shelter environment are very stressful to dogs, but I don't think dogs are going into their new home and pining for their old home," she says.

"When you adopt one, you become their person." 

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