The Fascinating Attachment Bond Between Humans and Dogs: How Two Different Species Coexist


El Fascinante Vínculo de Apego entre Humanos y Perros: Cómo Conviven Dos Especies Diferentes

Have you ever stopped to consider how dogs have the ability to live with a species other than their own, like us? The long history of the domestication of the dog by humans has created a special relationship in which dogs form social groups with us, allowing them to survive in our environment. This relationship is based on the attachment bond, which regulates an affective relationship between two individuals and is the basis for successful coexistence between humans and dogs.

The attachment system is a series of observable behaviors in puppies, such as eye contact with parents, physical tracking, and crying when the attachment figure is not available, among others. Parents produce responses to these behaviors, such as reaching out after crying.

The attachment bond has 5 characteristics, which were defined by psychologist John Bowlby: secure base effect, clear preference for the caregiver, refuge effect, stress behaviors during separation, and specific behaviors during the encounter with the caregiver. They are mentioned here below:

  1. Secure Base Effect: If the caregiver functions as a secure base, the person will be able to explore a new environment without signs of fear and will look to their secure base for reference.
  2. The individual must show a clear preference for their caregiver over strangers.
  3. refuge effect. When the individual experiences fear, they will approach and even hide behind their attachment figure.
  4. The stress behaviors must occur during separation from your attachment figure.
  5. Specific behaviors must occur during the encounter with the caregiver (the importance of greeting).

These criteria are valid for mother-child relationships. In them, the attachment figure has greater physical and cognitive capacities, constituting what we call an asymmetric attachment relationship.

How are the characteristics of dog-human attachment? The attachment bond between dogs and humans is asymmetric, since the human has greater cognitive abilities and regulates the dog's access to resources, but the 5 characteristics of attachment are met. It is similar to the attachment between a mother and her children, and the latest research shows that the centers that are activated in the brain of dogs when they see their guardian are the same centers that are activated in human babies when they see their mother.

Given that these 5 characteristics exist, can we measure attachment objectively? Psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Test to measure attachment. In it, a boy and his mother find themselves in a new room in which a series of predetermined episodes take place: a stranger enters; the mother leaves the child alone with the stranger; the child is left alone; unknown returns and later the mother. By observing the children they were able to successfully describe all the attachment criteria, for example, that the children played more in the presence of their mother, greeted her in a special way, and cried when left alone.

In the case of dogs, the strange situation test has been adapted by changing the figure of the father/mother to that of the guardian, but with a very similar order of episodes, and it can be shown that the 5 attachment criteria are also present in dogs. the canine-guardian relationship:

  • When the keeper was present, the dog explored the room (secure base).
  • The dog preferred to be closer to the guardian than to the stranger (attachment figure preference and refuge effect).
  • When the guardian left the room, the dog was showing signs of stress.
  • In the reunion with the tutor, he manifested special greeting behaviors.

Thus, it was objectively verified that the attachment between adult dogs and their guardians is functionally similar to that between the mother and her children.

This test also makes it possible to determine different types of attachment. A dysfunctional attachment bond can lead to the appearance of psychological and behavioral problems. In humans there are several types of attachment, some of which have been extrapolated to dogs:

–Secure attachment: Individuals who show some sign of stress when separated in a strange situation but who greet him when the guardian returns, quickly calm down and return to play/explore. They would be guardians who spend quality time with your dog, who accompany him when he explores and who are sensitive to his needs, that is, they function as a secure base.

–Anxious attachment: Individuals who are very stressed in the separation and who do not calm down when they are reunited with the tutor. Guardians are inconsistent, can reward and punish, are only available a few times with no predictability, and initiate few interactions. This type of attachment may be present in dogs with separation-related issues.

–Avoidant attachment: Individuals without signs of stress in the separation and who do not greet the tutor in the meeting. In humans, they are cold parents, who reject their child. In dogs it can occur in relationships based on authority and not cooperation. Guardians who do not understand the needs of their dog.

– Disorganized Attachment: Chaotic, the individual seeks and rejects. There are many fear and stress behaviors. These are individuals with painful or traumatic early experiences, it may correspond to mistreated dogs.

How do we get a secure attachment with our dog? We must behave like a true safe base and accompany our dog in his exploration of the world, be present when he faces new events and be his refuge in situations that can scare him. It is necessary to share quality time together, in which we will try to do activities with our dog that we both enjoy. We must behave in a predictable and consistent way, otherwise our dog will not know what to expect from us and may develop frustration and anxiety problems. Always use positive learning techniques and avoid punishment that will only deteriorate our bond and will not function as a safe base or refuge because who would want to go near a refuge that punishes them?


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