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Some people pick a pet because they've fallen head over heels in love. Others aren't so sure at the start. If it's not love at first sight, is that a bad sign of things to come? Does it mean you've picked the wrong pet?
The conclusion from research and experienced matchmakers: If you do your work to make the right match and help the bond develop, there's no need to worry.
Science can't explain why you love a Pug instead of a Golden Retriever, but it does know why you're set up to fall for dogs and cats. We have an instinctive urge to care for creatures that look babyish, says Dr. Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.
The idea goes back to the 1940s with the work of Nobel Prize-winning behaviorist Konrad Lorenz. "He was fascinated that newborn birds and mammals have almost the same body schema when they are first born," Beck says. "No matter how they are shaped as adults, they all start the same."
Juvenile physical qualities — a larger head, big eyes, less developed facial features — evoke an inborn caring response and deflect aggression. "When the newborn is seen by the mother animal or bird, she doesn't eat it — it triggers nurturing behavior," Beck says.
Humans have a similar instinct. Studies have shown that for people all over the world, those qualities are what make us find something cute. This response that helps make sure we care for our own young also tends to attract us to animals, especially the domesticated ones we typically keep as pets. Beck says, "If you look at our dogs, the juvenile characteristics that they maintain are not only behavior, but also facial and body features."
When you think about it, love at first sight isn't all it's cracked up to be. Falling for a photo — either on a dating website or a pet-finding site — doesn't always mean the relationship will work.
So how should we find that special someone? Some say to start with the practical considerations, and the bond is likely to develop with time. Unrealistic expectations are often what doom those online dates, and it can be the same with pets. Research shows that starting out with reasonable expectations is a big predictor that a pet will stay in the home, rather than being surrendered.
Robin Young, one of the founders of Mid-Atlantic Pug Rescue, has been working in rescue for over 10 years, and she fosters and adopts out 50 to 60 dogs every year. She sees her job as working to find the right pet for a family's lifestyle, and this sometimes requires a reality check.
"I ask, tell me about your day-to-day life," she says. "Maybe they say, 'We work a 9-hour day and commute two hours and the kids have baseball and soccer,' and they're saying they want a puppy."
Finding the right dog for each family may include gently pointing out that they probably don't have the time to deal with puppy training and behavior, but that a more mature dog might be a better fit. "My goal is to add something that complements the family, not just an addition," Young says. "Like any relationship, it's a little work. But it should not be taxing and stressing to add that additional family member, if you're adding the right complement."
Finding that fit is important for developing a bond. "If you're picking, practically speaking, what works for your family, usually that chemistry does follow," Young says.
Research also shows that enrolling in training classes increases the odds that a dog will remain in the home. "Participation in obedience class reduces risk of relinquishment," says Beck. "It's likely related to improved behavior and to better understanding and tolerance of behavior."
A well-trained dog is a pleasure to be with — you're not embarrassed by his antics, and having good experiences with your pet works as positive reinforcement for the owner. "If you have a dog that doesn't bark at everyone when you're walking, it improves your life with the dog," says Beck.
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