Dog Emotional Attachment

By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT

We know dogs have emotions and form bonds with us; however, sometimes human-animal attachments seem broken, or worse, unable to develop. Today, we will explore the various reasons why this happens, but more importantly, how can we change an insecure emotional attachment into a secure one.
John Bowlby was highly influenced by Konrad Lorenz when he decided to research and discuss attachment theory in the late sixties. His model proposed three attachment outcomes: secure, avoidant, and resistant. During the same time period, Mary Ainsworth added a research method to assess different forms of attachment, she called it the Strange Situation Classification. Her conclusion gave way to three types of attachment styles: secure, insecure avoidant, and insecure resistant.
Although similar, Bowbly focused on attachment as a fixed action pattern (FAP), whereas Ainsworth focused on acquired emotional connectedness. Both psychologists contributed to our understanding of attachment, but what about the human-dog bond? Can we form secure or insecure attachments with dogs? When you read the following definitions, simply replace the word infant or children with the word dog and see for yourself. I purposefully omitted sources to help readers make a non-scientific judgment.
Secure Attached dogs -
"Such children feel confident that the attachment figure will be available to meet their needs. They use the attachment figure as a safe base to explore the environment and seek the attachment figure in times of distress. Securely attached infants are easily soothed by the attachment figure when upset. Infants develop a secure attachment when the caregiver is sensitive to their signals, and responds appropriately to their needs."

Insecure Avoidant dogs -
"Insecure avoidant children do not orientate to their attachment figure while investigating the environment. They are very independent of the attachment figure both physically and emotionally. They do not seek contract with the attachment figure when distressed. Such children are likely to have a caregiver who is insensitive and rejecting of their needs. The attachment figure may withdraw from helping during difficult tasks and is often unavailable during times of emotional distress."

Insecure Resistant dogs -
"Here children adopt an ambivalent behavioral style towards the attachment figure. The child will commonly exhibit clingy and dependent behavior, but will be rejecting of the attachment figure when they engage in interaction. The child fails to develop any feelings of security from the attachment figure. Accordingly they exhibit difficulty moving away from the attachment figure to explore novel surroundings. When distressed they are difficult to soothe and are not comforted by interaction with the attachment figure. This behaviour results from an inconsistent level of response to their needs from the primary caregiver."

If you believe these attachment definitions apply to you or someone you know, you are not alone. Most dog owners fall under one of these attachment styles. The good news is we can change insecure attachments to secure ones because dogs are cognitively and emotionally eternal infants, so to speak.

Insecure Means Behaviour Problem
When dogs exhibit undesirable behaviours, the problem often resides in insecure attachment. The important thing to know is behaviour cannot be modified if the human-dog team has an insecure attachment; therefore, dog professionals will assess and address attachment issues first. Remember the Social-Cognitive article? We need to change dysfunctional units into functional teams through social-cognitive exercises before we can address the behaviour problem. Attachment functions in the same way.

Brain Games increase emotional control and through direct positive associations between game and human, secure attachments develop. In other words, when humans help their dogs solve problems, dogs learn to connect, bond, relate, attach to their humans; consequently, securely attached human-dog teams display better problem-solving skills and desirable behaviours.

To help you grasp the idea further, imagine you are in the kitchen and your dog rolls his ball under the couch. Your dog barks or runs back and forth from the couch to you. You realise something is wrong and investigate. You then see the dog heading to the couch and bark at it. You quickly understand there is something wrong. You bend over, see the ball, and grab the toy with your extremely long paws to solve your dog's problem. If you see yourself in this situation, kudos, you have a secure human-dog attachment.

Secure or insecure attachments are neither good or bad, they are what they are. I see attachment issues as tools to help us understand how dog behaviour evolves and why. As the old saying goes, once we recognise the problem, half the work is done.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base. Oxon, UK: Routledge.
Boyd, D., Bee, H., & Johnson, P. (2009). Lifespan Development (3ed.) Toronto, ON: Pearson.
McLeod, S. (2007). Bowlby's Attachment Theory. Retrieved from:
McLeod, S. (2008, updated 2014). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from:

Horse Attachment -

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