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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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That Puppy Love–Is It Mutual?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 1, 2013

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. (Photo: Rekha Garton/Reuters)

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. (Photo: Rekha Garton/Reuters)

My latest for TakePart could make dog owners a little nervous about their attachment style:

A lot of things in this world don’t go exactly the way we might like. And then there are dogs. You may lose your job. You may lose your romantic partner. But you can always count on your dog for unconditional and uncomplaining love.

As the Bill Currington song puts it:

He never tells me that he’s sick of this house
He never says, “Why don’t you get off that couch?”
He don’t cost me nothin’ when he wants to go out
I want you to love me like my dog

But, hey, did anybody ever ask the dog? Is he really so uncritical? Even when we come rolling in drunk and stupid? Or when, with no justification whatsoever, we take out our frustrations at his expense? Or does he sit there thinking, “Oh, man, you didn’t just do what I think you did.”

How do dogs really feel about us after all?

That’s the challenging question taken up by a Scandinavian research team for a new study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, under the title “I like my dog, does my dog like me?”

Their conclusions may not be quite what you were hoping to hear. “There was no evidence to support the view that because a person has a strong emotional bond to their dog, their dog is similarly attached to them,” wrote Therese Rehn and her co-authors.

But we’ll get back to that shortly. What’s interesting about the study is that it bothers to consider the dog’s point of view in the first place. Most previous studies have looked exclusively at the human side of the relationship (and doesn’t that just about say everything?). Some studies have focused on how peoples’ personalities and patterns of forming attachments correlate with the way they bond with their dog. Others have relied on questionnaires, which puts the dog’s opinion at something of a disadvantage.

Rehn began with a questionnaire (for the owners) asking, “How often do you hug your dog?” and whether they agree or disagree with propositions like ”I wish my dog and I never had to be apart” or “My dog costs too much money.”

Then, to get the dogs’ side of the story, the researchers employed Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure, originally developed to measure the degree of attachment between human toddlers and their parents. The test procedures generally involved putting a dog alone in an unfamiliar room, then reuniting him with his owner, or introducing him to a stranger, and seeing how these different situations changed the dog’s behavior.

It turned out that, when the human test subjects had indicated that they spent a lot of time playing and otherwise interacting with their dogs, the dogs made a bigger deal of the reunion. But that “may be merely a reflection of a more owner-dependent dog who is not as used to being left alone,” the researchers concluded.  They also looked at whether dogs played independently more when in the presence of their owner, rather than a stranger, meaning the owner served as a secure base for exploration. But those same “owner-dependent” dogs actually stuck close to their owners, leading the researchers to detect a resemblance to “the ‘clinging’ behavior of children with an insecure ambivalent attachment style.”

So everything you thought was good about your relationship with your dog seems a little sketchy to these researchers.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that this is a conclusion few dog owners will want to accept.

But for the skeptics among you, it may be comforting to know this study, like all studies, has limits: It reported on just 20 dog-human pairs (larger studies are in the works). Sixteen of the owners were women, who may tend to differ from men in how they relate to dogs.

When I phoned her, Rehn pointed out that an insecure attachment style isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even in humans. “It would maximize survival chances, because you would get the most out of your parents,” she said. A dog’s feelings are shaped by what it has experienced with its owner, and insecurity may be a natural response to smothering love. Farmers who use their dogs for herding, Rehn suggested, probably encourage a more independent relationship, because they need their dogs to work at a distance.

The takeaway, said Rehn, is that what you do with your dog matters more than how much affection you show him, and what you should be doing instead of hugging him is challenging him with problem-solving tasks. Dogs need affection, of course, but also mental stimulation. Obedience training. The chance to get out and sniff around in the local park. Learning tricks—“even dumb tricks.” Rehn herself keeps a German shepherd at her apartment in Uppsala, Sweden, and hides treats around to keep him engaged. Kenzo has to think and sniff his way through the challenge.

The other takeaway is that dogs aren’t just the living equivalent of stuffed animals, a means for you to feel unconditional, uncomplaining love. Dogs are individuals, with personalities. They respond with a full complement of emotions to the treatment we give them.

So have a little respect for your dog. Ease off on the cuddling and the baby talk, ramp up the challenges and the problem solving. Remind yourself that there are two very different individuals in this relationship, neither completely transparent to the other. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend,” Groucho Marx once wrote. And then he added, with more wisdom than he probably intended “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

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