Does your dog’s tail start wagging every time you enter the room? Do they seem to know what you’re thinking? Are they on your lap as you’re reading this?
If you answered “of course, duh” to the above, your dog may have “imprinted” on you. While not usually associated with canines, imprinting is a term used to describe bonding between young animals and their caretakers — and for many pet parents, the concept rings true to their relationships with their furry friends.
What does it mean when a dog imprints on you? Read on for telltale signs, as well as expert tips for bonding with your bestie.
What Is Imprinting?
Imprinting refers to a time in a young animal’s life when it forms important attachments and learns how to be said animal.
The most classic examples of imprinting are found among precocial birds, a term that refers to species born with open eyes, downy feathers, and ready-to-run legs. After hatching, precocial birds are mobile but still extremely vulnerable, so they quickly seek out a parent figure and establish strong bonds.
Imprinting has recently captured the interest of Internet pet parents, but the endearing survival skill has long intrigued humans:
- Humans have known about imprinting since ancient times, when Roman farmers gathered wildfowl eggs and placed them under domesticated hens, knowing the hatchlings would easily accept “Mom.”
- In the early 1900s, Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz formally studied the phenomena and discovered that newly hatched goslings would instinctively follow the first moving object they saw. (As this was often Lorenz himself, he was frequently followed around his estate by young geese.)
- More recently, in 2003, Italian aviator Angelo d’Arrigo imprinted himself upon a flock of endangered Siberian cranes. Using a hang-glider, he was then able to lead the birds on a 3,000-mile migration path to the Caspian Sea that bypassed dangerous war zones.
Can Dogs Imprint on Humans?
So now, the million-dollar question: Can a dog imprint on you? With the right timing, can you have a pack of puppies following your every “mama” move?
Yes and no, the experts say. While other animals do imprint to an extent, the process isn’t as extreme as it is with birds. Dogs won’t blindly follow the first mama who walks by, but over time, they imprint in their own way, forming strong and important bonds with humans.
“We know imprinting from animals like birds, who instinctively follow the first moving thing they see after being born, even if it’s a human,” says Dr. Sabrina Kong, a California-based veterinarian. “Some mammals, like puppies, go through the same process, but during a longer period.”
Puppies must spend at least eight weeks bonding with their mother and siblings, says Dr. Kong. After that, they enter what some people call the “human imprinting” period, during which they can begin bonding with their human caretaker.
“In the case of dogs, they start to accept humans as part of their life, they learn how to behave with those humans, and they learn those humans will meet their needs,” says Dr. Kong.
If you and your pup met later in life, don’t worry — there’s no window on bonding with your dog.
“While early socialization is crucial for a dog’s development and attachment to their human, dogs can also form attachments to new humans later in life,” says Dr. Georgina Ushi Phillips, a Florida-based veterinarian. “Dogs are social beings that thrive on human companionship, and with patience and positive reinforcement, most dogs can develop strong bonds with humans.”
5 Signs Your Dog Imprinted on You
Convinced you have a paw print on your heart? Here are some surefire signs your dog imprinted on you.
1. You’re the Known Favorite
Who’s the best human? You’re the best human! If you think your dog plays favorites, you’re probably right. Dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they aren’t shy about letting the world know you’re BFFs. “Usually, dogs choose to stay closer to the person that spends the most time playing, feeding, and interacting with them,” says Dr. Kong. “However, they can bond and show affection to other humans, as well.”
3. They Can See Into Your Soul
Does your heart light up when you lock eyes with your pup? That’s love — and science.
Eye contact between humans and canines triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for love and bonding. In fact, a 2015 study found that dogs experience a 130 percent increase in oxytocin levels after making eye contact with their owners, while humans experience a 300 percent increase. Talk about a win-win.
3. They Stay Close in New Environments
If your bestie sticks close by when you’re at a new park or visiting a friend’s house, that’s a good sign that your dog-human bond is next-level. “Dogs who have formed a strong bond with their person often display loyalty by protecting them, staying close to them in unfamiliar situations, or alerting them to potential dangers,” says Dr. Phillips.
4. Your Shadow Has Four Legs
If your dog follows you everywhere, consider it a compliment. Whether you’ve known your pet since puppyhood or you forged your bonds later in life, your dog stays close by because they enjoy your company and trust your caretaking. Now that’s what we call puppy love.
5. They Mirror Your Behaviors
Puppy see, puppy do! If your four-legged friend mimics your moves, it speaks to your close connection. As social butterflies who form deep bonds with humans, dogs are attuned to our routines and emotions. Studies have shown that dogs not only understand human emotions but also show empathy and reflect their caretakers’ emotional states. In fact, dogs can even “catch” yawns from humans!
How to Continue Bonding With Your Dog
Whether you just met your dog or you’ve been by each other’s sides for years, it’s always important to continue strengthening your relationship. Here, Dr. Phillips offers tips for how to bond with your dog:
Schedule quality time. “Set aside time each day to spend quality time with your dog,” she says. “This can include taking them on walks, playing with them, or simply cuddling with them on the couch.”
Prioritize mental and physical exercise. “Dogs who are well-exercised and mentally stimulated are often happier and more content,” she explains. “Provide your dog with plenty of opportunities for physical exercise and mental stimulation, such as puzzle toys, training sessions, or interactive playtime.”
Practice positive reinforcement. “Use positive reinforcement training methods, such as rewards and praise, to teach your dog new commands and tricks,” she suggests.
Be observant. “Pay attention to your dog’s body language and cues, such as tail wagging, ear position, and vocalizations,” she adds. “This can help you understand their needs and communicate with them more effectively.”
Routine, routine, routine. “Provide structure and consistency in your dog’s daily routine, including feeding times, potty breaks, and exercise,” she stresses. “Dogs thrive on routine, and will learn to depend on you, creating a strong bond.”
With a little work, a lot of love, and a ton of fun, you can continue to build a strong bond with your dog. While you may never be “mama bird,” you’ll earn an even better title: best friend!
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- Joly-Mascheroni, Ramiro M et al. “Dogs catch human yawns.” Biology letters vol. 4,5 (2008): 446-8. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2008.0333