When a dog "imprints" on someone, it means that they have formed a strong and lasting bond, often viewing that person as a significant figure in their life. This can happen with their primary caregiver, but it can also occur with anyone who spends a significant amount of time with them and provides care and attention. Dog imprinting or bonding with humans is essential to the pet-owner relationship and may last a lifetime. Your dog’s imprinting promises an impactful bond and ensures you and your dog are lifelong friends.
What is Imprinting?
Imprinting, which happens shortly after birth (or hatching), is usually associated with precocial animals who can see, hear, and move around their environment right away. These animals are born with a drive to attach to someone they can follow and learn from as soon as possible. During this period, they rapidly learn about their identity and the behaviors they should mimic for survival.
Can Dogs Imprint on Humans?
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.
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 three to 12 weeks of age as a puppy. 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 seven to 12, they are primed to learn about the larger world, including people and how to interact with them. They even form deep attachments.
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? With dogs, even older dogs, there’s some flexibility around when learning occurs and when social animal 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.
Three Stages of Dog Imprinting
Imprinting occurs while a dog is a puppy but has three stages of development essential to the process. Of course it always depends on the individual dog. If a dog imprinted on you, this is typically how it happened:
Canine Imprinting Stage
When dogs and puppies are three to seven weeks old, they start learning about their parents, littermates, and themselves as dogs.
Human Imprinting Stage
A dog begins the crucial socialization period of their lives at eight to ten weeks, interacting with and learning about humans and other pups.
Fear Imprinting Stage
Some dogs go through the fear imprinting stage at eight to ten weeks old if they experience a traumatic event and become wary of new environments and people.
Here are Some Detailed Signs That Your Dog May Have Imprinted On You:
Constant Attachment: A dog that has imprinted on you will often want to be near you at all times. They may follow you from room to room and seek physical contact, such as leaning against you or placing a paw on your lap. Think of yourself as their "favorite human."
Greeting Rituals: When you come home, a dog that has imprinted on you will show extreme excitement. They may jump, wag their tail vigorously, and even vocalize to express their joy at seeing you.
Eye Contact: Imprinting often leads to intense eye contact. Your dog will look into your eyes with a deep, affectionate gaze, which is a sign of trust and love.
Seeking Physical Contact: They may lean against you, nuzzle you, or rest their head on your lap. This physical closeness is a clear sign of attachment.
Following Your Cues: Dogs that have imprinted on you will be highly attuned to your body language and gestures. They'll often respond to your cues, even without verbal commands.
Separation Anxiety: If your dog displays signs of distress when you leave, such as whining, pacing, or destructive behavior, it may indicate your dog breed has a strong attachment.
Protective Behavior: They may show protective instincts towards you, such as standing between you and perceived threats or growling if a stranger approaches too closely.
Preference for Your Company: Even in a group of people, a dog that has imprinted on you will often choose to stay close to you rather than interacting with others.
Relaxed Demeanor in Your Presence: They tend to be more relaxed and comfortable when you're around. This can be observed in their body language, which will be loose and not tense.
Seeking Reassurance: If your furry friend encounters something new or potentially scary, they may seek you out for reassurance. They'll look to you for guidance and comfort.
Responsive to Your Voice: They'll perk up or respond when they hear your voice, due to your strong bond, indicating that they recognize and associate it with positive experiences.
Sharing Personal Space: Dogs that have imprinted on you will often be comfortable with you entering their personal space. They may allow you to handle them, touch their paws, or groom them without discomfort.
Playfulness and Engagement: They'll be eager to engage in playtime with you. This can include fetching, tug-of-war, or simply running around together.
Mirroring Behavior: They may start to mirror some of your actions. For example, if you yawn, they might yawn too, which is a sign of empathy and connection.
Eager to Please: Dogs that have imprinted on you will often be motivated to please you. They'll be more willing to follow commands and try to understand what you want.
Bringing You Gifts: If you have owned a cat at a point, you will know they give gifts, but did you know that dogs do too? Unlike cats, who present dead prey to family members as a “gift,” most dogs will bring you a toy or a ball as a way to show their affection. Of course, this behavior is also a way for them to get you to play with them, or they want you to show them some attention. But either way, it’s a sign that your dog sees you as someone special and wants to make you happy.
They Sleep Next To You: Canines are social creatures, and they love nothing more than being close to their pack. Even if your dog has a bed, it will often choose to sleep next to you or on your bed instead. In the wild, they would sleep huddled together for warmth and protection, so sleeping next to you is their way of showing you that they trust you and feel safe with you.
How Do I Know My Dog Loves Me?
How dogs love us is a matter of perception. They look at our faces and make eye contact. They wag their tails or wiggle their butts as we walk in the door and present us with toys to play with. They desire physical affection. They want to sleep next to us.
And unlike other animals, they seek us out for comfort and safety. As pet parents, you know that they follow you around, and some get upset when we leave, even potentially to the point of anxiety.
But those are things we perceive as dog love. We just don't know for sure. But we do have science helping us better understand dogs loving and dogs imprinting.
Can Dogs Imprint On More Than One Person?
Dogs typically imprint on one person, meaning they bond to one human in particular as their source of food, shelter, and safety. Though dogs can bond closely to other dogs or people in the household, they tend to follow around and listen to the person they imprinted on.
Dogs bond in different ways, and are pack animals. In both the wolf and dog packs, there is always a number one or alpha dog, that is considered the top of the pack. So if you recognize imprinting behavior, congratulations, you just might be your dog's favorite person/pet parent!
If your dog has imprinted on you, you will notice that they will act quite attached to you. You might not be able to go far without them following you around (hello, bathroom trip for two?), and they might experience anxiety or similar anxious behaviors when you are not with them.
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.
It's important to remember that the intensity of these signs can vary from dog to dog, and some dogs may naturally be more independent than others. Additionally, the strength of the bond and level of dog imprinting can be influenced by factors such as how you care for and interact with your dog. Always cherish and reciprocate the love and trust your dog shows you!