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What Our Dogs Can Tell Us About Ourselves

Psychological testing sheds light on one of our most intimate relationships.

Key points

  • A study of dogs' interactions with their owners found similarities to parent-child attachment in humans.
  • On a neurochemical level, dogs from puppy mills or hoarding have parallels to children from adverse or impoverished environments.
  • Dogs and people appear to share emotions such as excitement and anxiety.
Source: Wittybear/Shutterstock

Our dogs know us intimately. They know if we’ve had a bad day at work, how often we raid the refrigerator, and how, exactly, our feet smell. In many ways, dogs become like family.

This close connection has attracted the interest of scientific researchers. Using psychological and neurobiological testing measures, they are exploring the dynamics of human-dog relationships, including attachment and shared emotions.

We Are Family

At the 30th Conference of the International Society of Anthrozoology, held online last month, Dr. Shelly Volsche chaired a session about people’s shifting relationships with their pets. “Individuals are often choosing not to have children at all, and instead invest that energy in and become deeply bonded with their companion animals,” she told attendees. “When you spend more time engaging with and paying attention to an individual human or non-human life, you start to become more aware of their individual personalities or desires. This awareness and concern for the needs of our companion are driving a new negotiation of the relationships.” For example, people more often refer to themselves as “parents” or “guardians” rather than “owners” of their companion dogs and cats.

Parent and Child Attachment

As dogs come to serve the role of surrogate or extended family, dimensions of our interspecies relationship are being explored using standard psychological research tools. One such dimension is the “attachment” bond that an infant develops with their primary caregiver, typically the mother.

Babies who are treated attentively, consistently, and kindly by their primary caregiver develop what’s known as a “secure” attachment style—a strong and healthy interpersonal bond that empowers future relationships. Securely attached children are curious and confident about exploring their world, and if they encounter frightening situations, they return to the safety and comfort of the caregiver as a “secure base.”

Psychologists gauge attachment style by observing the interactions between a young child, their primary caregiver, and a stranger, using a testing protocol known as the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In recent years, researchers have repurposed this test to study dogs’ interactions with their human caregiver and a stranger.

In the May 2021 issue of Integrative and Comparative Biology, researchers at Oregon State University used a version of Ainsworth’s protocol to compare the relationship of a pet dog with its caregiver to the relationship that the dog had with another dog living in the home. “The return of a bonded owner had a significantly greater impact on stress reduction and behaviors associated with attachment security for more dogs,” wrote the authors. They found that over three-quarters of the dogs were soothed by the return of their human, while just two percent were soothed by the return of a cohabitant dog.

Most dogs behaved toward their dog peers more like how we treat a brother or sister. The authors reasoned, “This may in part be due to the fact that pet dogs typically remain dependent on human care, protection and provisioning even as they age. The extension of infant-caregiver attachment patterns could represent an effective social strategy for dogs, amplifying their success under certain environmental conditions.”

Neurochemical Parallels

“In the last 20 years, people started looking at companion animals as interesting model systems,” said Rosemary Strasser, director of the Neuroscience and Behavior Graduate Program at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

Her lab has been examining the biochemistry and epigenetics of dogs’ social relationships and stress response. One study, in preparation, compares the effect of oxytocin nasal spray—a hormone that regulates social bonding—on therapy dogs versus ordinary pets. Unpublished results suggest that the two groups differ. Therapy dogs did not change their behavior when given a nasal treatment containing oxytocin. “They were already very directed towards other people,” said Strasser. “But the pet dogs that received the oxytocin essentially acted like therapy dogs.”

Now the team is working with animal welfare organizations and owners of dogs adopted from hoarding situations to investigate the impact of suboptimal care and limited human interaction during early life. “This is very similar to human studies where we look at kids coming from adverse or impoverished environments and what it does to them long-term,” she said. One study looked at dogs’ DNA cortisol receptors and found they get turned off through stress-induced methylation. Related findings suggest that, like children from a background of deprivation or trauma, dogs from adverse early conditions suffer higher rates of chronic medical issues and other problems.

Strasser—who herself is a dog sport enthusiast—also mentioned a study of neurochemical synchronization between owners and their dogs. Using saliva samples, owner and dog cortisol levels were measured before, during, and after an agility competition. “Basically, as the owners’ cortisol levels change, their dogs match it,” said Strasser. “The synchronization is bidirectional.”

Dancing with Our Dogs

Dogs and people can synchronize excitement, such as during competition, and possibly share other emotional states. A study published in the July-August 2021 issue of Journal of Veterinary Behavior questioned 1,172 dog owners. Researchers found “a significant positive correlation between owners’ trait anxiety and the severity of their dogs’ fear and anxiety-related behavior.”

Another study currently underway at the University of Helsinki, Finland, has gathered information from 2,700 individuals who own 3,300 cats and dogs. Participants completed validated surveys that characterize their own human personality type and attachment bond as well as their pets’ behavior and traits. Data analysis should be completed within a few months and results submitted for publication later this year.

“We expect to see correlations between pet and owner personalities, as many previous studies have concluded that the personalities of pets resemble the personalities of their owners,” postdoctoral researcher Milla Salonen shared by email. “For example, neuroticism could be associated with pet fearfulness. We also expect that owner and/or pet personalities associate with the strength of attachment.”

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What kind of dog parent are you?


Volsche, S. (2021, June 24). More than a Pet: “Pet Parenting” as an Emerging Family Practice. International Society for Anthrozoology, Online.…

Ainsworth, M. D., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41(1), 49–67.

Pereira, M., Lourenco, A., Lima, M., Serpell, J., & Silva, K. (2021). Evaluation of mediating and moderating effects on the relationship between owners’ and dogs’ anxiety: A tool to understand a complex problem. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 44, 55–61.

Boghean, L. (2020). Is the Relationship Between Early Life Stress and Attachment Modulated by DNA Methylation of the Oxytocin Receptor Gene? Student Research and Creative Activity Fair.

Salonen, M., Mikkola, S., Hakanen, E., Sulkama, S., Puurunen, J., & Lohi, H. (2021). Reliability and Validity of a Dog Personality and Unwanted Behavior Survey. Animals, 11(5), 1234.

Hormonal Synchronization of Cortisol Levels and Emotional Contagion Between Human Owners and Agility Dogs—ProQuest. (n.d.). Retrieved July 19, 2021, from…

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