7 Signs Your Dog Has Imprinted On You
Not sure what that means...or if it’s a good thing? A veterinary behaviorist explains.
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Does your dog only have eyes for you? Do they look to you for guidance more than they do other members of the family? According to The Internet, those might be signs your dog imprinted on you. But we wanted to find out for sure. So we checked in with Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and co-founder of Synergy Veterinary Behavior, to understand what imprinting actually is.
First thing’s first, what is imprinting?
“Imprinting is a special type of learning that is rapidly occurring and age-dependent,” Dr. Valli tells The Wildest. “Imprint periods are often very discretely defined periods of development, and if that period is missed, then that learning will not take place.”
Imprinting is most closely associated with precocial species. These are birds, cattle, sheep, or other species that are hatched or born with their sight, hearing, and other senses fully formed. Take a baby chick, for example. They enter the world able to immediately move around their environment, which means they need to figure out who their parents are very quickly, so they know who to model their behavior after. As a result, a chick will imprint on the first moving thing it sees and will follow it around exclusively. Ideally, that moving thing is its mother. But it could be, say, a lawnmower. Given the magnitude of this first attachment, appropriate imprinting is critical for these species.
Can dogs imprint on people?
Dogs are an example of an altricial species (as are cats and humans). Their senses are not fully developed at birth, and they can’t move about their environment right away, so their impressionable periods work a little differently. Dr. Valli explains:
“Dogs don’t imprint in the same way that precocial species do. However, they do have sensitive periods in which their brains are primed to learn about the individuals around them. Typically this occurs between 3-12 weeks of age. During the early part of this period, they form their intra-dog relationships and learn about their immediate environment. They also learn dog-to-dog social skills such as bite inhibition and canine social signaling. Then, from weeks 7-12, they are primed to learn about the larger world, including people and how to interact with them.”
It’s the latter part of this phase when you are most likely to make an everlasting impression on your pup. It may also be when your dog starts to view one person as their primary caretaker and all-around BFF. So in a more general (but less scientific) sense, this is when a dog can “imprint” on a person and start to pick up cues from them.
But what if you get your dog later in life when they’re past this initial rapid learning phase? According to Dr. Valli, “with dogs, there’s some flexibility around when learning occurs and when social bonds can be made. Dogs can still be introduced to new things and people after the initial socialization period. However, it may be a bit more difficult or take more time, so patience is key.”
Signs your dog imprinted on you.
At this point, you’re probably wondering how you’d know if your pup made that extra special bond with you. Here are a few indicators to look for:
They follow you around closely
They mirror your behaviors
They follow your commands more readily than they do other people’s
They check in with you frequently when in new environments or situations
They are constantly seeking out your companionship
They make eye contact with you and are happy to see you
They snuggle with your belongings when you’re not around
Can your dog be too attached to you?
It feels good to be your pup’s numero uno. But is there a potential downside to this attachment thing? Dr. Valli says it can vary by dog.
“If a dog has a strong attachment to you, that can be beneficial or problematic depending on the individual dog. For example, a dog with a strong interest in an individual may be more willing to come to that person when asked, engage with them in training, and spend more time with them. However, in some dogs, a strong attachment could be associated with distress when that person is not present.”
If you have concerns about separation anxiety or other signs that your dog struggles when you’re not around to show them the ropes, check in with your regular veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for advice on managing their behavior.
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Kate Sheofsky hails from San Francisco, where she developed a love of writing, Giants baseball, and houses she can’t afford. She currently lives in Portland, OR, and works as a freelance writer and content strategist. When not typing away on her laptop, she enjoys tooling around the city with her two rescue pups searching for tasty food and sunny patios.