Sticky Bonds

Lost Loves, Romances, and Families in the 21st Century.

Is Your Dog Bonded to You Like a Baby?

New research compares infant/parent attachment to the dog/owner bond

As a long-time child psychologist and dog lover, I thought this new research was interesting:

Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna recently reported their results on the similarities between infant/parent and dog/owner bonds (Horn, Huber & Range, PLoS One, May, 2013).

According to Attachment Theory, human infants have an innate need to be close to their caregivers; one aspect of this attachment is called the "secure base": a caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to his or her infant's signals becomes an attachment figure, a secure base, as the child explores the environment; this sense of security gives the child confidence to try new things, venture out into new situations, and meet new people, trusting that the primary caregiver is there in times of stress.

 An eighteen month old child with a secure attachment to the primary caregiver (usually the parent) will play alone until something worrisome happens (maybe a stranger approaches), and then run back to the caregiver for comfort, perhaps briefly, receive reassurance, and then confidently go off to play again. Children who are presented with a problem-solving task are more persistent when their parents are present and they can use the parents as a secure base.

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 In the recent study by Horn et al., dogs' reactions were measured under three conditions: encouraging owner; silent owner; absent owner. The dogs could work for rewards, but the researchers found that when the owners were absent, the dogs were less likely to work for the reward than when the owners were present, either encouraging or silent.

The addition of a stranger made no difference: the dogs worked hardest for food when their owners were present with the stranger, whether encouraging or silent, but not when the owners were gone.

After several trials, the researchers concluded that dogs gain confidence from the presence of their owners, just as young children form secure attachments to their parents and gain confidence from those bonds.

 Although this physical need for the parent as a secure base in humans is not evident as the child grows older (a teenager does not cling to the parent, after all), although personality is affected by early attachment, the authors cite research that suggests that dogs never lose their need for proximity.

The authors plan to do further research on situations which cause security or insecurity in dogs.

Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the California State University, Sacramento. She is the author of Lost & Found Lovers.

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