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  • Writer's pictureLynzey Ruscitti

Exploring Attachment Theory and Dog Guardianship: How we truly can be our Bestie’s Bestie!

Humans and dogs are both social creatures, and while our languages are vastly different, we share the capacity to form intraspecific and interspecific bonds (i.e: attachments within and outside of our species, respectively).


The Dog-Human bond has fascinated us for centuries; it has literally transcended time and continues to evolve today. It even has its own catchphrase: “Man’s Best Friend”. It’s truly a special connection, and if you’ve ever had the privilege of a dog’s love and friendship, you know what I’m talking about. However, I’m going to let you in on a little secret- It’s not magic, it’s Attachment Theory! Okay, there might be a little magic, yet understanding Attachment Theory- the concept of bond formation, typically between child and caregiver, and how it shapes the way we navigate other relationships as we develop- provides key insight into our special interspecies dyad. More importantly, it teaches us how to be better for our besties; how to build secure foundational attachments in order to set both parties up for success while navigating the world we live in.


First, let’s talk about Attachment Theory. Attachment begins with the emotional bond that forms between an infant and their caregiver. This bond is primal in nature as the infant is completely dependent on the caregiver to meet its needs (5, 9, 17, 13). This bond is the platform by which the infant might base its subsequent emotional, social and cognitive development; it stimulates growth of the brain, and creates a long lasting influence on how that infant might form relationships with others (5, 9, 13). There are four types of attachment styles; Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent and Disorganised. Typically, Secure Attachments are the ideal, whereby the caregiver has provided consistent security and support, leading the infant (or dog, in our case) to actively seek and maintain proximity with caregivers (13, 6). Secure Attachments are just one of four possible attachment styles; Avoidant attachment denotes an infant (or dog) who generally avoid interactions with caregivers and show no signs of distress in their absence; Ambivalent attachment which denotes that the caregiver has been unreliable in meeting the needs of the infant (or dog), who may resist interaction with the caregiver altogether; and Disorganized attachment, by which the attachment style of the infant or dog is not consistent with the first three (13, 6). Typically, individuals with a disorganized attachment style may have endured past traumas that make forming bonds confusing (13, 6).


While dogs and young children are not the same, the infant-caregiver bond mirrors what we typically see in the interactions we have with our dogs- we bring them home (often as young, impressionable pups), and they are completely dependent on us to meet their needs. We know that one thing is certain; part of the reason our Dog-human bond is so incredible is because our dogs have an anthropological tendency to read our body language and facial expressions, a skill strengthened through the process of domestication. In fact, it has been suggested that a dog’s readiness to look at the human face provides a basis for complex communication between our two species (10, 17, 15, 4). Monitoring the human face provides our dogs with important social information and cues that can help them make important decisions (4). Due to our dog’s amazing skill to understand human emotion, gestures and actions, they often form cooperative teams with us (herding breeds, guardian breeds, assistance dogs, search and rescue dogs, etc.)(4). This ability in our dogs has been shown to be unique to humans; in fact, according to Payne, Bennett and McGreevy (12), evidence suggests that dogs do not view humans as surrogate dogs (Pack Leader is out, Snack Feeder is in!), and unlike the presence of familiar dogs, the presence of a familiar human has been shown to reduce plasma cortisol concentrations (i.e: stress in the body) in dogs in novel environments. Plainly stated, our dogs prefer and defer to us often, especially when they need support.

But is this preference and deference enough to cultivate a truly secure attachment to one another? Is our Bestie’s unwavering loyalty all it takes? The Answer is- only partially. After all, in literally all other (healthy) relationships in our lives, it’s “give and take”, “takes two to tango”, and “a two way street”. Unlike human infants, who tend to grow up and gain their own sense of independence, most household dogs of the modern world remain (for better or worse) captive. As Benz-Schwarzburg, Monso and Huber (4) mention, there is a necessary power imbalance in the dog-human relationship, and therefore an ethical responsibility that arises in the way we form our bond with our dogs. Yes, we know that dogs are capable of cooperating with humans, but how much of that cooperation is their choice? Truth be told, our dogs don’t often get a lot of agency in their lives and, like any other sentient being, this can impact their well being (and our relationships) significantly. If building a secure attachment style with a dog entails providing them a comforting, safe environment while meeting their needs consistently, then agency (when feasible), predictability and controllability are all critical components of their everyday lives.

Agency can be defined as the ability to have some level of control in our environment and ability to make choices that result in a desirable outcome (3). Similarly, Controllability and predictability are intrinsically linked, whereby control is confounded by predictability in that having control over a stimulus also means that it is predictable (2). For our dogs, applying these concepts would look like the ability to express normal dog behaviors (sniffing, running, chewing, digging, rolling, etc.), choice in food or toy (you try eating the same thing and solving the same puzzle day in day out), and ability to consent in activities (examples: Does your dog really want to greet other dogs or people?). That’s not to say that routine is out the window, but rather having choice within routine provides the maximum amount of security.


Unfortunately, a symptom of the Dog Training and Behavior industry being unregulated is that harmfully outdated training methods (and tools) are still being marketed to unsuspecting Dog Guardians, despite the abundance of evidence and advocacy against their use. In fact, most caregivers are not even aware that this industry is unregulated at all, and can therefore be glamoured by the smoke and mirrors of celebrity and entertainment based handlers seen on media platforms such as TV and TikTok. It’s more important than ever for Guardians and Caregivers to be skeptical, and research who they're putting their trust in when it comes to their dogs.


Therefore, training methods are an important factor to consider when discussing agency, as well as overall wellbeing and secure attachment building with our dogs. Poor quality training methods- whereby the dog is punished (i.e: given a “correction” through the use of collar popping, choke chains, prong collars, slip leads, shock and spray collars, etc.) for an undesirable behavior- increase stress, onset by a decrease in controllability of the context and predictability in what the handler is asking for (2, 8, 18). There is even evidence to suggest aversive training methods have more insidious fallouts, including acute and chronic physical injury, worsening of behavior problems and compromised welfare of the dog both within and outside of a training context (1, 18, 16, 11). Reward based and Force Free training on the other hand is shown to increase the control and predictability the dog has, increases confidence, learning ability, attentiveness to handler and cue response, and should be used to provide welfare benefits inside and outside of training contexts (2, 1, 14, 8, 18, 7). Dog’s who are trained through reward based methods are also known to display more play behaviors not only with their humans, but to unfamiliar ones as well (those who play together, stay together!) (2, 1, 14, 8, 18, 7).


My ultimate trouble-shooting rule when working with my clients is to work with the dog in front of you- get to know your dog as they are in the moment and check your expectations. Regardless if Fido has done [insert behavior here] in the past- does that expectation set them up for success right now? Does your dog have agency in this situation? If Agency isn’t an option (as often seen during non-negotiable events, such as Vet visits, grooming appointments, etc.), how can you provide your dog support? Of course, life isn’t perfect and tends to throw many nuances at us that can test the Dog-human relationship, but that’s the case with all our relationships (human or otherwise). As the caregiver (and therefore the individual in the position of power), it’s more important to provide those solid foundations of security and support. Prioritizing and providing agency as a framework for cultivating a secure attachment with our dogs is really an opportunity for the human to be mindful and check-in; a skill that can be learned by anyone.

A woman in a blue shirt sitting on the grass with her black dog
Indy and I, chillin' at our favourite park.

Works Cited

  1. Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A. and Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3-4), pp.131–142. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003.

  2. Bassett, L. and Buchanan-Smith, H.M. (2007). Effects of predictability on the welfare of captive animals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 102(3-4), pp.223–245. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2006.05.029.

  3. Bender, A. (2019). Canine enrichment for the real world : making it a part of your dog’s daily life. Wenatchee, Washington: Dogwise Publishing.

  4. Benz-Schwarzburg, J., Monsó, S. and Huber, L. (2020). How Dogs Perceive Humans and How Humans Should Treat Their Pet Dogs: Linking Cognition With Ethics. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.584037.

  5. Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss. Vol. 2. Separation : anxiety and anger. New York, NY: Basic Books.

  6. Cherry, K. (2022). What You Should Know about Attachment Styles. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/attachment-styles-2795344.

  7. China, L., Mills, D.S. and Cooper, J.J. (2020). Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508.

  8. Guilherme Fernandes, J., Olsson, I.A.S. and Vieira de Castro, A.C. (2017). Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, [online] 196, pp.1–12. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.07.001.

  9. Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and attachment theory. London: Routledge.

  10. Miklósi, Á. and Topál, J. (2013). What does it take to become ‘best friends’? Evolutionary changes in canine social competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(6), pp.287–294. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2013.04.005.

  11. Nilson, S. (2022). Advocating for Humane Techniques | BARKS from the Guild. [online] Available at: https://barksmagazine.com/article/advocating-for-humane-techniques/ [Accessed 28 Aug. 2023].

  12. Payne, E., Bennett, P. and McGreevy, P. (2015). Current Perspectives on Attachment and Bonding in the Dog–human Dyad. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, [online] 8, p.71. doi:https://doi.org/10.2147/prbm.s74972.

  13. Psychology Today (2019). Attachment | Psychology Today. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/attachment.

  14. Rooney, N.J. and Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, [online] 132(3-4), pp.169–177. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007.

  15. Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S., Minunno, M. and Quaranta, A. (2018). Communication in Dogs. Animals, [online] 8(8), p.131. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ani8080131.

  16. Vieira de Castro, A.C., Fuchs, D., Morello, G.M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L. and Olsson, I.A.S. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLOS ONE, 15(12), p.e0225023. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225023.

  17. Udell, M.A.R. and Brubaker, L. (2016). Are Dogs Social Generalists? Canine Social Cognition, Attachment, and the Dog-Human Bond. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(5), pp.327–333. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416662647.

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