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Do You and Your Dog Need Couples Counseling?

Humans may not be the only ones with attachment disorders.
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(Photo: Sinisa Botas/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Sinisa Botas/Shutterstock)

Do you dread leaving your dog home alone? Do you come back from dinner and a show to find chewed-up shoes, or foul-smelling puddles on your kitchen floor?

If so, a newly published study suggests the blame may not lay entirely with Fido. Rather, this sort of acting out may be a symptom of a problematic relationship.

Yours and his.

Researchers from Hungary and Germany argue that the tendency to avoid close attachments to others—a personality trait that is a common source of friction within families—sometimes extends to one’s canine companion. Owners who keep their emotional distance "are less responsive to the dog's needs," they write in the journal PLoS One, and the animal—not unlike a neglected child—fails to develop the sense of security that keeps him calm in times of stress.

Dogs whose needs are ignored, or not even noticed, never come to see their owner as a reliable source of comfort and protection. It's not a stretch to believe they fear being abandoned.

Hence the howling your neighbors complain about.

The researchers, led by Veronika Konok of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, base their study on attachment theory, which was developed in the 1960s by psychologist John Bowlby and refined in the 1970s by Mary Ainsworth. Its key concept is that infants need a primary caregiver who is available and responsive to their needs without being overbearing. Lacking such a figure, children fail to develop a strong sense of personal security, which makes it difficult to connect with others.

Not surprisingly, “insecurely attached children are more prone to show separation anxiety,” Konok and her colleagues note. Later in life, as adults, they “show less consistent responsiveness to their children’s needs.”

Obviously, applying this framework to relationships between owners and their pets is an inexact science. Dogs can’t tell us that they feel neglected by their owner. But they can, and do, act out, and the researchers believe this behavior reflects similar patterns to those Bowlby discovered in children.

They conducted two identical studies of dog owners—323 Hungarians, and 1,185 Germans. They indicated whether the animal engaged in a variety of negative behaviors when left alone, including whining, barking, pacing, trembling, or urination in inappropriate places. They also answered a series of questions designed to identify both their personality traits and those of their dog.

Most importantly, the dog owners responded to a series of questions that measured the way they navigate close relationships. On a one-to-five scale, they indicated the degree to which they agreed with such statements as “I find it relatively easy to get close to others,” and “I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on others.”

The researchers found that owners who score high on “attachment avoidance”—which is to say, those who tend to avoid intimacy and put little energy into relationships—“were more likely to have dogs with a separation-related disorder.

“Although we cannot be sure about the direction and causality of this relationship,” the researchers write, “there are reasons to assume that the owners’ avoidant attachment contributes (at least in part) to the behavior problem of the dog.”

Specifically, they propose that dogs whose needs are ignored, or not even noticed, never come to see their owner as a reliable source of comfort and protection. It's not a stretch to believe they fear being abandoned. This leads them to feel unusually anxious when the owner is away, and that anxiety results in one or more bad behaviors.

The researchers concede that the data could be interpreted in other ways. They note that it’s possible that “owners select dogs that are similar to themselves, either at the individual or at the breed level.”

It seems more likely, however, that the amount of closeness that was established early on between dog and owner is the key to a well-adjusted pet who quietly waits for you to get home.

You ignore those attention-seeking nudges at your own peril.