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Explained: How dogs emotionally attach to their owners

Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

Dogs and humans have been living together for thousands of years. And during this time, we have developed an incredible and unbreakable bond with each other. And, if you’re like me, you consider your dog a part of your family.

But how exactly do we form such a strong bond with our beloved pets? And are all bonds between dog and owner created equal? To answer these questions we will dive into dog emotional attachment theory. In this article, I will discuss:

Picture of a dog and a girl
Image by Markus Trier from Pixabay

The theory of the human-dog bond – called attachment theory in proper psychological terms – is based on human studies in which it has been shown that infants have a strong need to be near a caretaker, the attachment figure (often the mother). Attachment theory explains the dog’s attachment to the owner and gives some insight into how dogs become attached to the owner.

An attachment bond is a close emotional relationship between two individuals. The dog–owner relationship shows some similarities to human caregiver–infant relationships. Of course, dogs are not babies, but they show similar behaviours of attachment, such as approaching, following, clinging, or vocalizing towards their owners. I will call these ‘closeness’ signals in the rest of this article.

There are different ways to respond to a dog’s closeness signals. For example, you can respond to your dog’s closeness signals in a sensitive way and acknowledge his need for reassurance. But sometimes you may ignore your dog because you find his attention-seeking behaviour annoying.

Another possibility is that you are the one to initiate the contact. You can do this in a respectful way and look at your dog’s body language signals to know if he wants to be close to you in that particular moment. Or you can do this in an invasive way where you ignore your dog’s boundaries when he does not want to be close to you. In this post you can see a video of how a dog tells you that he does not want to be petted. It is very important to respect these type of ‘no’ signals to maintain a healthy bond.

So exactly how attached do dogs get to their owners? How you respond to your dog’s closeness signals (and how your dog responds to yours) will determine how your bond develops over time, and this process already starts in puppyhood. The dog-owner bond is consistent over time and space, and is maintained even during periods of separation. The type of bond is also called an ‘attachment style’.

 

Owners that have a secure attachment style with their dog will respond to their dog’s signals and acknowledge their need for closeness and safety.

You, the owner, need to provide a secure base from which your dog can explore its environment. But at the same time, you need to act as a safe haven to return to when your dog faces danger. It does not matter if the danger is real, for example, meeting an aggressive dog when going for a walk.

Or if they danger is perceived, for example, meeting a friendly dog but your dog acts as if this dog is a threat. Your dog’s brain does not understand the difference between real and perceived threats, and reacts in the same way.

Supporting your dog during a stressful situation is important to fulfil your dog’s need for closeness and safety and promotes a healthy attachment.

The type of attachment style is normally measured during a separation and reunion test in a laboratory setting. The owner leaves the dog for a period of time (usually a few minutes) and the behaviour of the dog is recorded during the owner’s absence.

A stranger may also enter the room during the owner’s absence, and the behavioural reactions toward the stranger are measured. When the owner comes back (reunion), the behaviour of the dog is also analysed.

Picture of man and dog
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Healthy greeting behaviour is an indication of a secure attachment.

The reunion between the dog and their owner helps to strengthen the bond and because of this, the greeting procedure after a separation helps to maintain and promote the quality of the owner-dog relationship. In this way

The behavioural patterns during separation and reunion can be divided into three different attachment styles (there is also a fourth but this is beyond the scope for this article):

Behaviour of dogs with a secure attachment style

When a securely attached dog is separated from the owner, exploratory behaviours decrease and distress behaviours and vocalizations increase significantly. A stranger cannot comfort the dog during the period of separation.

But when the owner returns, the dog will approach the owner, make eye contact and initiate physical contact. This includes touching the caregiver with the head or snout, jumping up with paws on the owners body, or sustained leaning against the owner’s body or hands. Distress behaviours and vocalizations usually disappear quickly once reunited.

Beyond a secure attachment, however, there are two other attachment styles.

Behaviour of dogs with a an avoidant attachment style.

The first is called the avoidant attachment style. A dog with an avoidant attachment style may show distress when left alone. But when the owner returns, the dog does not approach the owner and look for comfort. Instead, the dog will look away from the owner (avoids eye contact) and keeps a distance. Often, the dog rather explores the room instead. They may also accept comfort from a stranger. Sometimes they spent as much time with a stranger as with their owner!

Behaviour of dogs with an anxious attachment style.

The last one is the anxious (also called ambivalent) attachment style. When a dog with this attachment style is separated from their owner, they typically show a high frequency of distress behaviours and vocalizations. They will also actively search for their owner.

Upon reunion with their owner, they make strong efforts to maintain physical contact mixed with persistent distress and/or physically intrusive behaviour directed toward the caregiver (e.g. jumping on the owner). This dog often does not calm down after being reunited with the owner.

Can my dog be hyper-attachment to me?

Does your dog follow you around the house constantly? Does she get very agitated when you leave, and asks for a lot of attention, or even jump on you to express her fear? And when you come back after a period of separation, does she greet you excessively and has difficulties calming down? When your dog shows these behaviours, you may wonder ‘is my dog too attached to me’?

These type of behaviours are very typical for a dog with separation anxiety. Sometimes a dog expressing clingy behaviour is also called a ‘velcro dog’. Read more about separation anxiety here.

So, can dogs get too attached to their owner? 

Picture of girl and dog
Image by Christina Chiz from Pixabay

You may have heard that a dog with separation-anxiety is hyper-attached to you, and should be ‘taught’ to be more independent.

You may have received advice to not reward the attention-seeking behaviour and ignore your dog 15-30 minutes before leaving. And when you return, you may also have been advised not to interact with her until she is calm.

So that you only reward the ‘good’ behaviour and not the ‘bad’ attention-seeking behaviour.

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But is your dog really hyper-attached to you, or is this an indication of other dog attachment issues?

In the human literature, the concept of hyper-attachment does not exist. And there is little evidence for hyper-attachment in the dog-owner relationship. In one study, the amount of time spent close to the owner during a separation test was the same for dogs with and without separation anxiety.

Actually, this study showed that following owners around the house was a very common behaviour in all dogs, also for dogs that did not have separation anxiety.

The expression of more closeness signals and some anxiety before you leave your dog are normal behaviours.

Another study showed that lots of excitement and activity before the owner was leaving the house – and after coming back – did not lead to separation anxiety. However, dogs with separation anxiety clearly are less able to cope with being by themselves, and show different behaviours when they are left alone.

Therefore, an over-excited and excessively attention-seeking dog could be expressing an anxious attachment style, rather than being hyper-attached to you. To be fair, no science exists yet on how dogs develop an anxious attachment style.

But if we extrapolate from humans, it could mean that these dogs have learned that their owner’s care is inconsistent. Sometimes warm and caring, but dismissive and cold at other times. The dog may be confused by the ‘mixed’ signals and not sure about the relationship. This may explain why they cannot cope with being alone: because they are not sure if the owner will return and they may not have learned good stress coping skills.

The advice to ignore your dog when she is expressing anxiety and wants to be close to you may also lead to the development of an avoidant attachment style. She may learn that you aren’t reliable and cannot provide comfort and safety when she needs you the most. The same applies when you ignore your dog upon reunion.

A healthy reunion involves physical contact and reassurance and is critical for a healthy relationship.

Some studies suggest that the owners’ attachment avoidance may play a role in the development of separation-related problems in dogs. It is possible that these owners are less responsive to the dog’s needs and do not provide a secure base for the dog when needed. The dog then learns that the owner is not a source of comfort and safety. But again, these interpretations are mostly based on human studies, because studies investigating how dogs develop avoidant attachment styles do not exist yet.

But what we do know is that it is very important that you provide comfort for your dog during stressful situation. This is when it matters most!

But you probably don’t need to give the correct response to your dog’s closeness signals all the time, nobody is perfect! From human studies, it seems that giving the right response about 60% of the time is enough to build a secure attachment style. How much is needed for dogs? I can’t tell you yet, we’d need to do some studies first.

Just know that rather than ignoring your dog when they express their anxiety, please reassure them, spend time with them, comfort them and love them!