Measuring Pet-Owner Attachment in Dogs and Cats


Have you heard of the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test? It’s a procedure that was developed in the 1970s to measure the attachment between a child and a caregiver. Researchers have also been using this test to measure the attachment relationship between pets and their owners. The findings about both dogs and cats have proven interesting!


In the test, a child (or pet) is placed in a room with the parent, and then in different phases, either a stranger comes in or the child is left alone. The child’s reaction is analyzed to see what attachment style he has.


The four attachment styles are: Secure, Anxious-avoidant/Insecure, Anxious-ambivalent-resistant/Insecure, and Disorganized/Disoriented.


What does this mean for pets? Studies of dogs and their owners find that dogs react in similar ways to human children. Dogs are more likely to play with a stranger if their owner is also present. Dogs also show signs of distress (like pawing at the door or vocalizing) when they are left in a room alone, and greet their owners enthusiastically when they return. Researchers also note that dogs are more likely to sit in close proximity to an owner’s things (such as a coat) when the owner is out of the room.


How about cats? As might be expected, cats demonstrate their attachment to their owners differently than dogs do. Some cats immediately find a place to hide when they’re put in a study room! Among the cats that stay out, researchers tend to find few changes in their play behaviors, vocalizations, and movements, whether they’re with their owner or a stranger. They also do not react with the same anxiety as dogs when the owner leaves the room.


Why are cats and dogs so different in this area? Experts theorize that because dogs are social animals, they share some of the same attachment characteristics as human children. Because cats are more solitary and independent by nature, they do not view their owners as the center of their sense of safety and security, and are less likely to suffer from separation anxiety.




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