Puppy Love

Why understanding the human-animal bond is essential to their happiness — and ours


May 10, 2018

By Theresa Hogue

When Monique Udell looks into the eyes of a puppy or kitten, she sees more than just a cute face. She sees an animal whose fate, happiness and success are intimately intertwined with that of humankind. Pets, especially dogs and cats, hold a unique place in the homes of many humans around the world, but exactly how they form attachments to us, and how our own attachments benefit them, has only recently been explored.

Monique Udell observes interactions between writer Theresa Hogue and Hogue’s dog Simone as well as her focus on a variety of tempting toys. (Photo: Jen Pywell)

Udell is an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University. She is also director of the OSU Human-Animal Interaction Lab, where she and her team study dog and cat cognition as well as how dogs and cats relate to humans. Her work is funded by the National Institutes of Health and Maddie’s Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports companion animals.

Growing up, Udell dreamed about becoming a veterinarian. But while taking pre-vet courses in college, she discovered another compelling field: animal behavior. She was immediately smitten.

“Initially I was very interested in social behavior,” she says. “I did work with birds and rodents because they’re social animals. I was interested in aspects of imitation and communication.”

When she exhausted the options in biology, she started taking psychology classes and became struck with how the process of attachment — how we form social bonds — affects both people and animals. This dual interest led  her to do graduate work in psychology with a focus on animal behavior.

Animals and Us

In the past, Udell says, studies on animal behavior, including attachment and cognition, were often done so that scientists could apply that research to humans, using animals as a substitute for human subjects. But in the last 20 years, the field of animal behavior has greatly expanded. Researchers focus more on how their work can benefit pets and their owners.

Monique Udell reviews the steps in her research on dog-human attachment with writer Theresa Hogue and Hogue’s dog Simone. (Photo: Jen Pywell)

“It’s fascinating that we’re just answering some of these questions now because we have this really long history with companion animals,” Udell adds. “We’ve taken another species into our home and raised them with that level of attention and affection and in many cases make such substantial sacrifices to keep these animals in our lives, and yet our understanding of why we do that and how we can develop these bonds is limited. We have a long way to go.”

After years of looking at how animals can inform our understanding of human behavior, the tables are now turned as research on human parent-child attachment is being applied to dog and cat subjects. The similarities are remarkable. Because it appears that human and dog attachment is not that different, Udell hopes to use decades of human-child research to improve human-animal connections.

“What have human psychologists learned about the way these attachment styles impact children? And can we find similar relationships in dogs? Can we say these things might be true in dogs?” Udell asks. “If so, there’s a lot of great literature that tells us what we can do about that and how we can make animals’ lives better.”

Documenting similarities in human and animal attachments, says Udell, could lead to improvements in understanding animals. Such knowledge could help predict the development of problem behaviors or what it takes for an animal to successfully bond to a person.

“We know that dogs and cats can form attachments to owners much in the same way that children form attachments to their parents. We’re trying to understand how these relationships work,” she says.

Secure, Ambivalent or Insecure

Udell’s research has shown that, like humans, dogs typically fall into three different categories of attachment. Securely attached dogs usually greet their owners happily and then, after a short time, go back to their usual behavior. Other dogs fall into a category known as “insecure ambivalent.” They are excited about their owners but are desperate for attention and don’t calm down easily.

A third category is called “insecure avoidant.” These animals don’t greet or acknowledge their owners or seek their attention.

“These are all patterns that were identified in the 1960s in children and their parents,” Udell explains. “It maps on incredibly well. The dog videos look so much like the child videos. You can spot these categories very quickly.” Cats fall into the same categories as well.

Simone’s ability to focus on a food puzzle is part of the animal attachment research.
(Photos: Jen Pywell)

When conducting research on dog behavior and attachment, Udell says the first step is to identify the ideal human-dog relationship.

“A lot of what we do is trying to figure out what the goals are, what type of relationships lead to the best outcomes and mutual well-being in home or work settings, so we can then provide advice about how you go about reaching those targets,” Udell says. “But a lot of that information just doesn’t exist yet.”

Science has yet to describe the ideal profile for behavior that leads to a successful, well-adjusted dog, she emphasizes.

(Photo courtesy of University Marketing)

A key to that knowledge may come from working with dogs in shelters and comparing behavior and attachment to that of dogs living in homes. These tests could eventually be predictors for a dog’s likelihood of being adopted or help change the way shelters work with dogs and cats. Research may help shelter workers assess an animal’s ability to bond with future owners and even potentially help operators better match animal personalities with owner profiles to ensure better adoption success rates.

“With cats, that includes looking at things like training classes and trying to understand if formal socialization has added benefit in terms of increasing the human-cat bond,” she says. “If we understand that a certain type of relationship profile more or less predicts how those relationships will develop in the adoptive home we could potentially provide tips on fitting that interaction profile.”

Animals for Human Development

Another area of research Udell and her team are exploring, in collaboration with Megan MacDonald of Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, is dog-assisted therapy. They’re currently examining the relationships between children with developmental disabilities (both motor and social) and their family dogs, not necessarily a pet that has been specifically assigned as a therapy dog.

(Photo courtesy of University Marketing)

Adolescents in these studies are assigned to one of two programs. The first is a dog-walking program where children learn the rules of safe dog-walking and are assigned to walk their dog for 30 minutes a day. The second group also engages in “Do-As-I-Do Dog Training,” which is an imitation-based, positive reinforcement dog training exercise. The end goal is to strengthen the bond between child and dog, so they’re trying to achieve a goal together.

“It’s an active goal,” Udell explains. “Ultimately we are trying to increase physical activity levels to improve the health of the child and dog. And because it’s imitation-based learning, we’re hoping that will translate into improved social well-being and social skills.”

Imitation-based interventions are commonly used in children with developmental disabilities but typically it’s human to human, Udell says. “We’re essentially doing this with their dogs so they can have a sustainable relationship and skill development that they can continue at home after the intervention.”

There are many facets to the human-animal interaction that can be explored through the program, and the benefits to adolescents with developmental disabilities can be broad.

For example, she says, if children are having difficulty controlling their emotions and this behavior is impacting their interactions with their dog, the researchers work on building those skills on both sides of the relationship. “So the goal is to try to help the child figure out ways of interacting with the dog and help the dog figure out ways to interact with the child. That enhances that bond and leads to this joint mutual success.”

While research will likely lead to predictive factors that may improve how we relate to our closest animal companions, it’s also important to remember that each dog and cat in our life may relate to us a little differently.

“Animals are individuals. They have their own predispositions, and people in the household are individuals and have their own relationships,” Udell says. “This is something else we’re looking at, that it’s totally possible for a cat or a dog to have different attachment styles to different people. Often when we look at the literature on humans, we find evidence of having at least one secure attachment that’s important. Not every relationship has to be a secure attachment.”

As researchers continue to search for the keys that make our centuries-old relationship with companion animals even stronger, it is comforting to know that at this point, we’ve been together so long, we can’t do without each other.

“If people all completely disappeared,” Udell says, “dogs would be in rough shape. Many of us might feel the same way about a world without dogs.”

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