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Attachment Theory and its Application to Dogs

Updated: Apr 19

Dogs are social creatures, some breeds definitely more than others.

I have been listening to a lot of interviews with Dr. Gabor Maté, and just listened to this one with a researcher in Clinical Psychiatry, Dr. Dan Siegel. When a human child does not have a secure attachment and relationship to its guardian, when they grow up they are more likely to have anxiety as well as poor resilience to cope with life's ups and downs.

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment is the long-term bond between two individuals, whether parent with child, children with other children, husband and wife, and a secure attachment would ensure that this bond is filled with love, empathy and compassion. It means that each individual in that bond has learned to understand what the other is experiencing, so that they do not experience the highs and especially the lows on their own.

The theory of attachment-based parenting is that the parent is there to guide the child when there is feelings of hurt or despair. That the child can rely on their parent to comfort them when they are injured, to keep them safe from harm, and to acknowledge and understand their frustrations as they are learning to navigate their surroundings. This is different than helicopter parenting, and different than giving in to the child's tantrums, but acknowledging that it's ok for them to be frustrated when their LEGO tower is broken down, or that they didn't get a cookie before dinner.

Have you heard of attachment theory in dogs? How do we apply this? Puppies are rehomed as early as 6 weeks, immediately after weaning. The puppy may or may not have had a secure attachment with its biological mother, and is now brought into a new world where it needs to navigate its surroundings. The puppy does not understand human language. The puppy does not understand how to live in the home with a human family. The puppy will have certain needs. Food and water, shelter, a cozy and safe place to sleep, as well as socialization and play.

Psychology of Attachment

If you can recall, I did a minor in Psychology, when I did my Bachelor's of Science in Biology. Something that I can recall is a renowned study by Dr. Harry Harlow that demonstrated that infant monkeys required comfort when something in their environment was scary. That this comfort did not have to come from food i.e. nursing, but from the ability to cling to their mother. Mothers provide both food and comfort. However, if a mother is only there to provide food, an infant will need to find something else to attach to for comfort. Dr. Harlow found that when infant monkeys are presented with a wire mother that gives them food, or a soft cuddly mother, when they are frightened, they will cling to the soft mother. Most mammalian species have this attachment, because a mother who feeds and protects its young is more likely to have young that survive to the next generation. The infant needs to know that the mother will be there for protection when the infant feels threatened.

Harlow's Money

A puppy needs to have a smooth transition from their biological mother to living in a home with a human mother. For new puppy parents, it's important to pick up on your puppies insecurities, so that you can foster some independence while you are away, or sleeping.

An example for puppies, when you are trying to train your puppy to urinate and defecate outside, you are placing your puppy in a crate overnight or during the day when you are at work. Knowing that 8-week-old puppies cannot hold their bladders for 8 hours is extremely important. Puppy parents need to take them outside, likely every 2 to 3 hours, if they expect their puppy to be house-trained. If the puppy cries, and you do not come to let them out, they cannot rely on you to be there when they need you. This can contribute to anxiety of being stuck in a crate, or separation related distress. Puppy parents need to anticipate the puppies needs, prior to them having accidents. Never scold a puppy for having an accident in the house. Actually, never scold an adult dog either, since adult dogs who have accidents may actually have a medical condition.

If we think about the 8-week-old puppy being the equivalent of a 9-month-old human child, they are 100% reliant on a parent to feed them, ensure that they are safe from harm, ensure they have a comfortable and safe place to sleep, ensure that they are getting adequate sleep and rest for their developing brains, to build up their confidence when something scary happens by being there to support them. That is what good puppy parenting is like.

Often puppies will develop one attachment figure and this actually doesn't have to be the one that provides the food, but is the one that they can rely on to be there for them when something scary happens, just like the infant monkeys and their soft mothers. Dogs that grow up in a home without having that secure attachment could be predicted to have more human directed aggression. Imagine it this way. You play with your puppy, you give them treats, you give them attention and affection, rubbing their ears exactly how they enjoy it, but you scold them for chewing on your slipper. They are still ok with you, because of all the positivity that has been in their life. When it's a holiday and fireworks are suddenly in the picture, where does the puppy go? Runs to find its attachment figure.

Now imagine the puppy that is locked in the crate all day, is scolded for urinating in the house, is pinned down because of its play biting, is having its food withheld because a human has decided that they are the 'alpha' of their puppy. There may not be enough positive reserve in the bank, for when that puppy becomes an adult. Now, the puppy goes through social maturity around a year to three years of age, and it doesn't want to be locked in the crate. It doesn't want you to take the food bowl away from it. It doesn't want to be pinned down to the ground for defending itself. It doesn't want to came back inside from the yard. Without that secure attachment, we now have a dog that displays aggression towards the family members. See what I'm getting at?

So, if you ever have someone tell you to never comfort your puppy --- they are wrong. If you every have someone tell you to just let the puppy cry it out --- they are wrong. If you ever heard someone in puppy training say that nothing in life is free, that they should be working for their food --- also wrong. If they ever tell you that you need to show your puppy who is boss, who is alpha, who is pack leader --- also wrong.

The use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement based training methods was associated with increased chance of aggression to family and unfamiliar people outside the house1

Your puppy looks to you like a child looks to their parent. You should act like the parent you would always want to be.




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