The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Tough Love for Dog Lovers

New research shows he (or she) is just not that into you.

The 2009 book He's Just Not That Into You was (quoting the Amazon.com description) "tough love advice for otherwise smart women on how to tell when a guy just doesn’t like them enough...." 

Well, now we need tough love advice for dog owners.

Long story long: Let's look at the psychological literature on attachment theory.

In 1952 a British psychiatric social worker and psychoanalyst named James Robertson made a remarkable film called “A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital.” In those days you just dropped your baby off with the hospital staff. Robertson filmed the little girl’s emotional deterioration during an eight-day stay and minor operation. As was policy, she was allowed no contact with her parents. Needless to say, the movie got people thinking.

One of them was John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who, like Robertson, was associated with the Tavistock Clinic in London. Bowlby became one of the pioneers of naturalistic study of the infant-mother attachment, investigating the devastating effect on infants and toddlers of separation from the mother. How much separation can an emotionally secure baby handle from the mother? And does the security of the mother-baby bond predict how well the child functions through the remainder of its life?

Working with Bowlby was a graduate student. Mary Ainsworth developed an experimental paradigm called the Strange Situation that measured the strength and quality of individual toddlers’ attachment to their mothers. In the Strange Situation, a toddler and mother would enter a room full of playthings. Then a pleasant stranger would join them. For the remainder of the experiment the stranger would come and go, as would the mother. The experimenters noted the toddler’s willingness to wander away and play when the mother was present, the toddler’s stranger anxiety, his or her distress whenever the mother left, and (most importantly) the way the toddler responded to the mother when reunited. For approaching 50 years now the Strange Situation has been used to assess toddlers’ attachment to their mothers.

And now it’s being used on dogs and owners. Intrigued by the question of whether dogs and owners experience their relationship in the same way, researchers in Sweden used the Strange Situation to evaluate dogs’ attachment to owners. At the same time they used the Monash Dog Owner Relationship questionnaire to assess the relationship from the owner’s point of view.

They worked with 20 owners and their dogs. First, an owner filled out the questionnaire. Then owner and dog entered the small room typical of Strange Situation and went through the complex separation and union routine. The researchers noted that some owners got an impressive amount of licks and snuggles whenever they returned to the room. But they also noted that, regardless of how many snuggles an owner got, the experimenters found no correlation whatsoever between dogs’ behavior and owners’ expectations on measures of attachment. By and large, the distress dogs exhibited when their owners left the room and the joy they displayed upon reunion did not match the predictions that the owners had recorded when filling out the questionnaire.

Apparently, people aren’t nearly as important to their dogs as they imagine.  Is there tough love advice for dog owners to be gleaned here? Well, if they’re women and their dogs are male, owners might turn to Greg Behrendt’s best-selling dating advice book, He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Guide to Understanding Guys: “Be brave, my sweet. I know you can get lonely. I know you can crave companionship ... so badly that it physically hurts. But I truly believe that the only way you can find out that there’s something better out there is to first believe there’s something better out there. What other choice is there?” You can almost hear Behrendt following up with, “Go date a man. You think this dog loves you?”

But turning to self-help books probably isn’t necessary, as the study’s authors are unflinching in their conclusions.  “There is no support from this study for the view that the strength of the relationship an owner feels to his/her dog is mirrored in the strength of the relationship of the dog to its owner.”

Grrrr.

____

 

By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific AmericanDiscover, and Vermont Public Radio. She also presents a weekly radio spot, Family Friendly Science, on the nationally syndicated  show, Daybreak USA. By night she is a novelist and humorist. Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story is due out in May 2014 from She Writes Press. Nietzsche's Angel Food Cake: And Other "Recipes" for the Intellectually Famished was published in October 2013 by Beck & Branch.

 

Send a message to Rebecca Coffey
www.rebeccacoffey.com
Twitter: @rebeccacoffey

 

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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