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If given a choice, would your dog always choose to hang out with you over someone else? Research suggests it depends on where we are when we offer them the choice.

A recent study, published in Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, gave dogs the option of getting petted by their owner or by a stranger and looked at their behavior in two different locations. Some dogs were tested in a familiar place — a room in their own home, for example. Another group was tested in an unfamiliar room on a college campus. In both cases, the dog was brought into a room where his owner and a stranger were sitting in chairs, and he was free to approach either one.

When the dog approached a person, he would be petted for as long as he stayed put. Researchers kept track of how long the dogs spent interacting with people, and then calculated how much of that time was spent with each individual.

The results were quite different, depending on the testing location. In their own home, the dogs spent nearly 70 percent of the time interacting with a stranger. In an unfamiliar place, they spent nearly 80 percent of the time with their owner.

You might feel a bit insulted by the idea that your dog won’t always choose your company, but these results actually point to the vital role an owner plays in his or her dog’s life. Study authors Erica N. Feuerbacher and Clive D. L. Wynne conclude that their findings are consistent with previous research demonstrating that the owner is important to a dog in stressful situations. Dogs show what’s called “secure base effects,” similar to those seen with human infants and parents. They’re more likely to explore and play in the presence of their owner than with a stranger. Similarly, in this study, when the owner is there for support, the dog is more comfortable expressing the urge to be sociable.

Finally, the study also tested shelter dogs and pet dogs in a room with two strangers. All of the dogs quickly developed a preference for one person over the other and spent more time getting petted by that individual. Previous experiments have also demonstrated that shelter dogs quickly develop this kind of preference. It’s further proof that our canine companions love to form new bonds.

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