Me and My Dog: Is the Feeling Mutual?

You know you love your dog, but does the strength of your feeling affect how your dog feels about you?

A big dog kisses its owner
Photo: Poprugin Aleksey / Shutterstock
By Zazie Todd, PhD

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You know you love your dog. Those gorgeous eyes that gaze up at you, the way she runs to greet you when you get home from work, and that cute way she drops the leash in your lap when it’s time for walkies. It’s all adorable. But does your dog feel the same way about you?

A new study by Therese Rehn et al (2014) investigates whether or not there is a link between how an owner feels about their relationship, and how the dog feels. Twenty dog-owner pairs took part. The people were aged from 17 to 69 years old, and the dogs were mostly around four years old. The dogs were companion animals and had all lived with their owner for at least six months.

Of course it’s easy to find out how owners feel about their dogs: you ask them. The researchers used a questionnaire called the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS). Since the study took place in Sweden, it was translated into Swedish.

But you can’t just ask a dog. Instead the researchers used a measure of attachment called the Strange Situation. This test was originally developed for use in children, and more recently has been used to assess canines. It involves a fixed series of interactions in a room; the dog is sometimes with the owner or a stranger, and sometimes alone.

In this case, the researchers assessed differences in how the dog behaved when just with the owner, compared to with the owner and stranger present, and they also looked at how the dog greeted the owner when they came back into the room after a short separation. None of the dogs had separation anxiety, so that wouldn’t affect the results.

The results showed no correlation between the owner’s overall ratings of the relationship and the way the dog behaved during the Strange Situation. This is surprising. So, at least using these measures, the quality of the relationship isn’t the same for human and dog. It would be interesting to see whether any of the other standard tests for attachment (e.g. Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale) would relate to the dog’s behaviour in this test.

However, there were some interesting results. The MDORS includes a subscale that measures dog-human interaction. Owners with high ratings on this scale had dogs that initiated a lot of contact with the owner when greeting after an absence. Also, owners who interacted with their dog a lot had dogs that played less on their own, perhaps because the dog got lots of playtime with the owner.

When children take part in the Strange Situation, the results are used to say what kind of attachment style they have. In the case of the dogs, the differences in how the dog behaved with just the owner present, compared to the owner and stranger, were used to assess attachment style. Dogs that had a lot of physical contact on reuniting with the owner tended to change their behaviour the least when the stranger was present.

This is difficult to interpret in terms of attachment style. It might mean the owner did not provide a secure base for the dog to feel comfortable exploring near the stranger, which would be an insecure ambivalent attachment style. Or, it could be that the dogs were so well socialized that the presence of a stranger did not make much difference to them. This would be called an insecure avoidant attachment style. 

Of course, it could be that attachment is different in dogs and children. The best way to interpret these results in terms of canine-human attachment is a question that warrants further research.

There is some good news for owners. The dogs played more and explored the room more in the presence of their owners. They also greeted their owner more than they greeted the stranger, and spent more time close to their owner. 

The researchers say this shows that “the owner is a unique person to the dog from whom it seeks comfort, security and reassurance.” 

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Do you think your dog loves you?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

Rehn, T., Lindholm, U., Keeling, L., & Forkman, B. (2014). I like my dog, does my dog like me?. Applied Animal Behaviour sSience, 150, 65-73.

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