My Dog’s a Flirt! Measuring Companion Animal Attachment


My dog, the flirt:

Over the last two years, I’ve spent thousands of hours out and about with my dog. And it’s always the same. My adoring loving dog—the one who sleeps in my bed and spends hours curled up by my side—runs from stranger to stranger, flirting outrageously.

Cashiers, dog trainers, and parents with baby carriages will ooh and aah, pet and cuddle, doling out treats, while he smiles up at them, tail wagging wildly.

I feel bizarrely abandoned in public. Am I just here to toss balls and fill food bowls?

Then I read a brief article in the New York Times, and it all made sense. It’s attachment.

What is “attachment”?

Like many words used by psychologists, “attachment” has two meanings. It has the everyday meaning (I am attached to—aka love—my baby), and it has a technical meaning—in this case, one based on the ethological theory of John Bowlby. (Attachment theory is one of the more technical topics in developmental psychology, so I’ll just introduce it briefly.)

Bowlby was interested in a very particular puzzle: the bond between parent and infant. That bond is critical to the survival of individuals and also to humans as a species. Babies are helpless. They need protection from the dangers of the world. On the other hand, they need to explore that dangerous world so they can learn.

How have we evolved to solve that dilemma? Attachment.

According to Bowlby, the attachment system evolved to keep babies close enough to a protective other (an attachment figure), so they can regulate their emotions when frightened. Once their emotions are regulated and they feel safe, babies can use the attachment figure as a secure base from which to explore. When babies are frightened, that secure base is important—babies can retreat to the attachment figure and be soothed and protected.

For Bowlby, the infant (and toddler and later child and adult) is attached to the attachment figure because they draw comfort from them. Parents are not attached to their babies in the technical sense—they don’t draw comfort from them.

There are two important components of babies’ attachment:

  • Feelings of being safe and secure enough to explore
  • Being able to use the source of security (the attachment figure) to calm down and regulate emotions

The attachment system is all about feeling safe. That’s why nervous children literally cling to their mothers’ legs and why so many confident young adults call home when they’re sad or frightened.

Loki at 10 weeks

Source: Nancy Darling

(Note: adults—and even children—respond to helpless creatures with features that are “babylike.” It’s in our nature. To learn more, read “Why Are Puppies So Cute?”)

Everyone’s attached.

Bowlby correctly observed that virtually all humans develop attachments—even babies raised in abusive conditions or near isolation.

The quality of their attachment differs, however. In particular, it differs according to the two core components described above: the extent to which the infant can use the attachment figure to emotionally regulate when they are frightened and the extent to which they can use the attachment figure as a secure base for exploration.

Mary Ainsworth developed a standard procedure—dubbed the “Strange Situation”—to measure the extent to which toddlers perform these two core tasks.

In this protocol, the experimenter brings the toddler to an unfamiliar room with an adult (a mother, father, or sibling, for example). There are toys to play with—reason to explore—but the experimenter and the attachment figure come and go.

This situation provides the core components needed to assess individual differences in attachment:

  • The attachment system is activated: The toddler is in an unusual, slightly scary situation.
  • They are tempted to explore—there are interesting new toys.
  • Sometimes they are with a known adult and a stranger. Sometimes just the known adult. Sometimes the stranger. Sometimes alone.

Attachment Essential Reads

Core behaviors that are observed include:

  • How the toddler maintains contact with the familiar person
  • Whether they can re-establish the bond with the familiar person after they return
  • Whether they can use the familiar person to regulate their emotions

Most toddlers can use the familiar person as a secure base to maintain contact, self-soothe, and explore. Some can maintain contact but can’t self-soothe. Others don’t seem to establish contact. These differences have a profound impact on how toddlers grow into healthy adults.

Attachment works for puppies and kittens too!

I have taught and done research using attachment theory for years. But I never connected it with puppies and kittens until this morning.

I was reading an article in the New York Times that linked to an older piece on whether cats like people. (They do.)

Both dogs and cats have long been domesticated as companion animals. In fact, humans and dogs probably co-evolved as symbiotic partners. Research on cats’ relationship with their owners is much less advanced. Recent research, however, suggests that cats are able to use their owners as attachment figures. They draw security from our presence.

And how do they measure that? Cats and dogs are both notoriously bad at filling out surveys. Emotional bonding is measured using the Strange Situation (suitably adapted for animals). They make animals slightly nervous and observe them in a series of separations and reunions.

Nancy Darling

The flirt

Source: Nancy Darling

Which brings us back to the dog park:

My dog, Loki, is securely attached. He is confident, feels safe with me, and because he’s been spoiled rotten and has been systematically exposed to a variety of strangers and strange situations, he knows he is safe with them. We typically respond to hesitancy to new things on his part (lightning, snowmen, flapping tarps, or giant dinosaur toys) with vast quantities of treats, a comforting, calm presence, and time to let him explore and learn that he is safe. (In the world of dog training, this is what is meant by “socialization,” and it is a core component of raising happy, confident dogs.) For Loki, places like dog parks or stores are more stressful than hanging out in the living room, but not really scary. He is self-confident enough to handle it, and he also draws comfort from us.

So what does he do? He explores. And he knows that if he sidles up to strangers wagging his tail wildly, pats and treats will probably follow.

He’s a flirt. And it all comes down to attachment.

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