Is attachment to pet dogs linked to their behaviour?

Among both children and adults, attachment to the family dog is linked to responsiveness to training.

A woman is fast asleep while her beagle lies near her on the bed
Photo: Igor Normann/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Some people are more attached to their dogs than others.  Recently, we wrote about a study that found that people who relinquished their dog to animal shelters had lower attachment to them than people who were keeping their dog. This week, we discuss a new study by Christy Hoffman et al that asks whether there is a link between a dog’s behaviour and how attached the owner is to the dog.

The study involved a questionnaire that was completed by 60 adults and 92 children from sixty dog-owning families. As far as we know, this is the first study to look at attachment in children as well as their parents. The families completed the questionnaire as part of a wider long-term study of childhood and adolescence.  Most of the adults were female (88%), and they ranged in age from 30 to 62. The children were from 11 to 18 years old. On average, families had owned their dog for almost five years.

The dog’s behaviour was rated using a widely-established questionnaire called the C-BARQ.  Participants also answered questions about their attitudes to pets in general, their responsibility for the dog (such as feeding and walking it), and their attachment to the dog. A small group of participants completed the questionnaire again a few months later to check for test-retest reliability.

For both children and adults, more positive feelings about pets in general, and taking more responsibility for the care of the dog, were both linked to higher attachment to the dog. This is not surprising. After controlling for this statistically, the authors found that attachment to the dog was higher if the dog was rated as higher on the scales for trainability and for separation problems. In other words, attachment is higher if the dog is well-behaved and likes to spend time with its humans. 

Interestingly, there was no effect of the dog’s stranger-related aggression or fear on attachment.  However it should be noted that all of the dogs scored well on this and so none of them presented serious problems.

Adults were more attached to their dog if it was rated highly for attention-seeking, but this made no difference for children. Children’s attitudes to pets and levels of attachment were both strongly correlated with those of their parents. There was moderate agreement between children and parents about how trainable the dog was, and on some but not all of the other categories of the dog behaviour questions.

The study also looked at the effect of demographic characteristics, although because of the sample size they classified race as either Caucasian or not Caucasian. In terms of dog excitability there was an effect of race; amongst Caucasians, attachment was lower for more excitable dogs, whereas for non-Caucasians there was no effect of excitability on attachment. However, the authors say it may not be race that is the important factor here, but other differences such as whether dogs were kept mainly in the house or yard. There were no gender differences in attachment.

This study looked at the relationship between attachment and dog behaviour at one point in time; it isn’t possible to draw conclusions about the direction of the relationship. For example, it could be that taking responsibility for the dog’s care is a process that leads to higher attachment, but it is also possible that those who don’t feel particularly attached pass on responsibility to other members of the family. 

It is very interesting that perceived trainability was linked to attachment and this raises lots of possibilities for future research. A recent meta-analysis of whether dog personality traits are stable over time found that responsiveness to training was one of the least stable traits in puppies, but was more consistent in adult dogs. Further research into this trait is warranted, and it should also be remembered that humans can learn to improve their training abilities. 

Would you say your dog is very responsive to training, or not so much?

Fratkin, J. L., Sinn, D. L., Patall, E. A., & Gosling, S. D. (2013). Personality consistency in dogs: a meta-analysis. PloS one, 8(1), e54907.
Hoffman, C. L., Chen, P., Serpell, J. A., & Jacobson, K. C. (2013). Do dog behavioral characteristics predict the quality of the relationship between dogs and their owners?. Human-animal interaction bulletin, (2013).

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