If you've ever thought of your dog as your "baby," you'll be pleased to know that this description may be more accurate than you thought. New research suggests that dogs and toddlers have similar patterns of social skill development, and this new understanding may help researchers better understand conditions marked by behavioral disorders such as autism and Asperger's syndrome.

For the study, a team of researchers led by Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, performed a battery of tests designed to measure social skills on human 2-year-olds. They then compared the results with similar tests on dogs and on our closest cousin — the chimpanzee.

MacLean found that all three performed similarly on tests that measured cognition of their physical environment and spatial reasoning, but it was the tests that measured cooperative communication skills that set humans and dogs apart from the chimps. Toddlers and dogs performed similarly on tests in which social communication was key, such as following a finger or finding a treat by following a human's gaze.

"What we found is that there's this pattern, where dogs who are good at one of these social things tend to be good at lots of the related social things, and that's the same thing you find in kids, but you don't find it in chimpanzees," said MacLean.

The study gives researchers a new insight into the evolution of human behavior. MacLean suggests that humans and dogs may have evolved with similar behavior patterns designed to favor those who excel in cooperative social skills.

That's not to say that dogs are a better evolutionary match for humans. That honor is still reserved for the chimps. But when it comes to social skills, the similarities between dogs and humans might help researchers better understand human behavioral disorders, such as autism or Asperger's syndrome, that are often marked by difficulties with in social development.