What does "Fido's" behavior say about the relationship between you and your dog?

BUFFALO, NY - For centuries, dogs have been described as man’s best friend. This bond may be linked to the behavior of your precious pooch, according to a March 2013 study by Christy L. Hoffman, PhD, assistant professor of animal behavior at Canisius College.

The study looked at human-animal attachment among 60 dog-owning families, including parents and children. (This is the first study to look at attachment in children.) Participants completed questionnaires that asked about their attachment to their pet dogs, their levels of responsibility for the animals, such as feeding and walking them, and their general attitudes toward pets. Participants were also asked to rate their dogs on behavioral characteristics, including excitability, trainability, stranger fear and aggression, separation problems and attention-seeking behavior.

The study revealed several findings.

First, those individuals who had more positive feelings about pets, in general, and who took more responsibility for the care of their dogs, compared to others in their families, had higher attachments to their dogs. Perhaps this is not so surprising. But there’s more.

Hoffman also found that owners, regardless of gender, age or race, had a greater attachment to their dogs when the animals scored high on trainability and separation-related problems. In other words, if the dog is well-behaved and likes to socialize with humans, then the bond between the dog and its owner is greater.

Lastly, the study revealed that the more dogs demonstrate attention-seeking behavior with their adult owners, the more attached these owners are likely to be with their dogs. Interestingly, however, this made no difference to the children in the study.

“Children’s attitudes and levels of attachment toward their pets remained high, even when dogs showed low levels of attention-seeking behavior,” says Hoffman. Adult caregivers may tend to be more selective than children in the types of dogs with which they bond “due to work-related and parental responsibilities that already demand their attention,” explains Hoffman. “Thus, adults may only form emotional attachments with dogs that seek out their attention.”

Surprisingly, Hoffman’s study did not find any differences between males and females in their associations between dog characteristics and attachment to dogs.

Christy Hoffman, PhD, is an assistant professor of animal behavior at Canisius College. She collaborated on this research with researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. Their complete findings were published in the March 2013 Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin.