Owner-dog dyad by Jim Gillies BSc A.Dip CBM

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Human and dog phylogeny dates back to at least 10’000 years. It is a symbiotic relationship where humans and dogs form close relationship bonds. In modern times, the domestic dog has been deployed in a multitude of contexts that exploit and capitalise on their aptitude and responsiveness to human direction, for example farming, security and human assistance (Udell and Wynne, 2008). The relationship was previously described as unidirectional, the term dependant on the function the dog is required to perform. Laterally factors in the human-dog dyad have been described as bidirectional, emphasising the importance and implication of human interaction on the function a dog it required to perform (Topál et al., 1998).

Research into the human-dog attachment has focussed on the close, emotional relationship between the two species. Concluding the human-dog dyad is similar to that of a caregiver-infant relationship of human relationship Bowlby (1958). As a consequence, domestic dogs have developed attachment relationships such as proximity seeking where a dog will seek out an attachment figure as a coping strategy for stress (Schöberl et al., 2012). In the absence of an attachment figure, domestic dogs can develop behaviours indicative of separation-related distress.

In the study by (Topál et al., 1998) they describe attachment as a product of maturation and that it presumes a) the ability to discriminate and respond differentially to the object of attachment b) a preference for the attachment figure c) a response to separation from and reunion with attachment figure that is distinct from responses to others. The procedure used in the study by (Topál et al., 1998) is a methodological approach to the assessment of attachment called the Strange Situation Test devised by Ainsworth (1969). The procedure originated to examine the balance of attachment in context of human-infant relationship. In the study, infants responses were categorised into one of three overall patterns of behaviour – (A) insecure-avoidant (B) secure (C) insecure-resistant. Later studies by Main and Soloman (1990) described an additional category of attachment called (D) disorganised pattern.

In studies of non-human animals there is no other species more interesting than the domestic dog. In the study by (Topál et al., 1998) they discuss the phylogenic history of dogs in context of development of caregiver-infant relationship, comparing the relationship similar to human-infant attachment. Dog’s evolutionary history has favoured those individuals who seek out human companionship. Ethologically speaking it is difficult to view in the context of domestic dogs living in their natural habitat, which of course, they don’t. Artificial selection favoured dogs who socialised themselves as if they were conspecifics, resulting in their gene’s more likely to be passed on Kretchmer & Fox (1975). Their features and “sociocognitive abilities” has enhanced the human-dog dyad resulting in those dogs who had a greater propensity for initiating and maintaining human interaction.  This likely resulted in adaptations where dogs showed a preference for human bonding. The attachment between humans and dogs is likely rooted in the phylogenic history where a development of attachment would be a prerequisite (Konok et al., 2015). The relationship that subsequently develops can be described as “asymmetrical and dependency based”, analogous to that of a parent-child relationship Collis (1995). Thus forming an attachment style predicated on the conspecific nature of the relationship (Range and Virányi, 2013).

One of the primary methods of evaluating dog-human attachment is in the context of separation. In the study by Ainsworth (1969) it was shown that there are several types of attachments that manifest themselves on owner departure, absence and return. Therefore the choice to use Ainsworth (1969) Strange Test logical when analysing the nature of the human-dog attachment. In the study by (Topál et al., 1998) Fifty-one owners were selected for the experiment - 20 men and 31 women aged between 13-60years.  There were 51 dogs – 28 males and 23 females aged between 1-10 years. There were 20 differing breeds. The experimental conditions were analogous to the original Ainsworth (1969) study.

The study by (Topál et al., 1998) evaluated the experimental episodes of the strange situation procedure, analysing the effect of variables such as gender and age, before the analysing the effect of breed differences on the strange situation behaviour. The experimental conditions of the test resulted in being an effective in activating the attachment behaviour human-dog dyads.  The human-dog relationship could be a consequence of the shared 10,000 years of phylogenic interaction of the domestication process (Driscoll, Macdonald and O'Brien, 2009).  The dependency on humans over time has impacted on the phylogeny via artificial selection resulting in long-lasting, caregiver-receiver relationship in the form of socialisation. Anthropogenic influences on domestic dogs have resulted in many infantile behaviour patterns, such as attachment (Miklosi and Szabo, 2012).

(Gerwirtz, 1972; Rajecki et al., 1978) set the operational criteria for owner-dog dyads concluding owners as a secure base. Separation, reunion and its specific reactions are behavioural manifestations of the attachment of dogs to humans. The differing categories set out in Ainsworth (1969) Strange Test was revealed by increased exploration and frequent playing when the caregiver was present result in a secure-base effect. During the separation episodes dogs stood at the door, with no impact from having the stranger in the room, suggests a preference for owners during stressful situations. Ainsworth (1969) stated this reaction could be similar to the “searching response” in young children. When the dog and owner were reunited there was a specific reaction described as active and contact seeking. The age, gender of human or dogs was concluded to have no immediate effect on the behavioural variability. Dog living in families with multiple members displayed less proximity seeking behaviour towards owner, and less towards the stranger. The resulting socialisation is determined to have an influence on less clinging behaviour towards the owner. There was minimal variability caused by the heterogeneous and homogenous breeds, recording only small differences (Topál et al., 1998).

it can be concluded that higher levels of anxiety and stress results in expression of higher attachment behaviour and acceptance. Non-anxious dogs exhibited an increase in owner-avoidant behaviour. Although this can be accounted for by conditions of low stress. This perhaps gives us insight into the origin of separation related disorders. Overall stress and anxiety could set the conditions for high levels of attachment and high level of contact seeking. Socialisation could play a key role in the stress levels relating to separation and attachment. The study by (Topál et al., 1998) seems to suggest a correlation between stress and attachment with cluster group 2 being a good example to ratify this position.

Rescue dogs and wolves, in part due to lack of socialisation, could prove to exhibit more human avoidant behaviour resulting in low acceptance and low attachment. This highlights the importance of socialisation when evaluating the human-dog dyad. In a study by (Range and Virányi, 2013) discussed humans as conspecifics on relation to dogs and wolves. They concluded that intensive socialisation resulted in both dogs and wolves viewing the social aspect as important. Due to feral and semi feral dogs and wolves lacking sufficient socialisation, it is unlikely they would form the required social bond to exhibit high levels of attachment. Rescue dogs with prolonged isolation again likely lack the adequate socialisation to exhibit high levels of attachment, instead exhibiting low levels of attachment and acceptance resulting in higher levels of avoidant behaviour when interacting with humans (Udell and Wynne, 2008).


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Topál, J., Miklósi, Á., Csányi, V. and Dóka, A. (1998). Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): A new application of Ainsworth's (1969) Strange Situation Test. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 112(3), pp.219-229.

Udell, M. and Wynne, C. (2008). A Review of Domestic Dogs' (Canis Familiaris) Human-Like Behaviors: Or Why Behavior Analysts Should Stop Worrying and Love Their Dogs. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 89(2), pp.247-261.