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How owners’ attachment styles affect their dogs’ behaviour in stressful situations

Dogs and humans have been sharing their social contact for more than 100 000 years, hence it is not surprising that dogs evolved social skills that helped them to adapt to and survive in their new environment. In particular, dogs seem adept at understanding and utilising communication that has been argued to be ‘uniquely’ human, for example: referential-pointing, or gaze-following. Moreover, it was found that the social-bond between dogs and their human caretakers resembles the attachment expressed by human-infants (Topál et al. 1998).

Comparative and evolutionary psychology focuses on the understanding of evolutionary origins of human behaviour by looking for patterns of similarity and differences across a range of species, typically non-human great apes and other primates with whom we share most of our genetics. However, to study the evolutionary origin of social behaviour, species who we have a long evolutionary history, such as dogs, might be better candidates. While humans have less biologically in common with dogs, as opposed to other primates, we share far more in terms of our physical and social environment. Unlike livestock, dogs were domesticated to live within human social groups, often within our homes, and in many cultures today are most often found as companion animals. Given this particularly long and close history of social interaction with humans, it is likely that dogs are capable of the formation of human-like attachment with their caregivers.

Attachment that develops during childhood plays a very important part in our lives. It could be explained as a continuous emotional closeness that binds family members and helps prepare children for independence in their lives (Rees, 2005). Attachment styles (e.g. secure, insecure and disorganised) develop during the first few years and have very significant impact on people’s lives, i.e. it establishes a sense of security (or lack of it) and helps to navigate in social relationships, for example it has an effect on how people get along with others or how they choose their partner. It has also been proposed that children will develop same/similar attachment styles as their parents have due to the patterns in parenting. Attachment styles are characterised by specific behaviour patterns, e.g. securely attached children usually seek comfort from parents when frightened and show positive emotions when parents return after a brief separation, they also prefer parents to strangers, while insecurely attached children (anxious and avoidant) usually get distressed when parents leave and do not seek much comfort from parents. Nowadays attachment styles are considered to be more fluid than in past research, showing flexibility that depends on the particular context, social environment and dynamics of social interaction.

A method, called the Still Face Paradigm (SFP) developed by Tronick and his colleagues (1978) assesses how different styles of parenting could affect the emotional development of babies and evaluates the role of infants in a dyadic exchange to observe if they are active contributors. The results of the SFP showed that babies whose mother was usually responsive and caring often reacted with negative emotions and distress to their mother’s withdrawal in the Still Face period (performing an emotionless face and not responding to the baby). Babies often tried everything to get their mother’s attention and responsiveness back. However, babies of depressed mothers (e.g. who were suffering from postnatal depression) were less interactive during the spontaneous interaction before and after the Still Face period and showed less distress while the mother withdrew from the interaction (Field et al., 2007).

My research project (conducted with the help of Dr Cat Hobaiter) used the SFP to investigate the social cognitive skills of dogs and the dynamics of dog-human interactions while taking into consideration the relationship between owners and their dogs. The aims of the research were to assess whether dogs acquire human-like skills to communicate, whether they are active contributors to social interaction and whether attachment affects dogs’ responses during a dyadic exchange. Owners were asked to fill in two questionnaires to assess their own attachment style and the relationship with their dogs and dogs’ behavioural responses were also measured.

The behavioural data, i.e. how dogs reacted before-, during-, and after the Still Face period, suggested that dogs showed minor distress when their owners withdrew from the interaction. They performed whining, barking, touching, indicating they tried to reengage with their owner, just like human infants. As dogs also rely on referential communication signals (create eye contact with their owner in times of uncertainty) the time dogs spend on looking at the facial area of their owners during the three Still Face stages was considered (i.e. before the still face was performed, during the still face period when the interaction was interrupted, and after the still face when usual interaction was restored). The behaviour of dogs showed that there was a correlation between the owners’ attachment style and how dogs reacted to the owners’ behaviour during the interaction. The results showed that dogs of securely attached individuals were happy to interact with their owners during the first part and they felt safe enough to explore the surrounding, i.e. spending less time on looking at the face or gaze towards the body of their owner, while dogs of insecurely attached owners, especially with anxious attachment type, dogs spent significantly more time on looking at the face and body of their owners, probably looking for eye contact when the owner stopped the interaction. A slight carry-over effect was also present, i.e. dogs with securely attached owners were a bit reluctant to reengage with owners, while dogs of insecurely attached owners spent more time on looking at the face of the owner after the interruption. The pictures below represent the behaviour of one of the border collies during the three stages of interaction.

Interaction before still face

Still face period

Resume interaction

Although these are only preliminary results and need to be interpreted with caution, taken together with previous research findings about dogs’ attachment-like behaviour, indicate that dogs might have an expectation about the dynamics of dyadic exchanges with humans and they feel puzzled when this interaction is interrupted with a sudden withdrawal of their social partner. People often report that their dogs can adjust their behaviours to their owners’ mood and feelings. It could be possible that this special ability of dogs is also dependent on how we take care of them and treat them in certain situation. All in all, having a strong, mutual relationship with our dog is equally beneficial for humans and dogs and could affect our dog’s responses to social situations not just with humans but with other dogs as well.

Topál, J., Miklósi, Á., Csányi, V., & 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), 219.

Rees C.A. (2005). Thinking about children's attachments. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 90, 1058–1065

Field, T., Hernandez‐Reif, M., Diego, M., Feijo, L., Vera, Y., Gil, K., & Sanders, C. (2007). Still‐face and separation effects on depressed mother‐infant interactions. Infant Mental Health Journal: Official Publication of The World Association for Infant Mental Health, 28(3), 314-323.

Tronick, E., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S., & Brazelton, T. B. (1978). The infant's response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction. Journal of the American Academy of Child psychiatry, 17(1), 1-13.

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