What Is Attachment?
Attachment was described by the psychologist John Bowlby (The Nature of a Child’s Tie to His Mother, 1958) as a survival mechanism, as necessary as drives for hunger or reproduction. In the infant animal, attachment to the caregiver (or mother) ensured that the infant did not stray too far, and that it seeked proximity to the caregiver when there were internal threats such as illness or hunger, or external threats like cold or an approaching predator. Attachment thus ensured that the younger and vulnerable animals stayed close to an adult and more experienced animal for protection. In the absence of a threat, the young animal felt safe to explore and play, knowing that the caregiver was close by.
The same relation can be found between domestic dogs and their owner. A securely attached dog will feel confident to explore a new environment, knowing that the owner is there to keep it safe. If the dog should become frightened or feel overwhelmed it could briefly return to the owner, using it as a secure base to gain comfort and reassurance, before venturing out again. A securely attached dog can thus use the owner’s presence to recover quickly from stress. However, the behaviour of a securely attached dog will also be affected by the dog’s personality. For example, a neurotic dog may become stressed by minor things, and may need to return or check-in with the owner more frequently, and for longer periods in between exploration than a dog which is confident and has a higher tolerance for stress.
Insecure Attachment - The Velcro Dog
This post however, is intended to focus on the insecurely attached dog. (There are several types of insecure attachment, which in dogs have received very limited attention from researchers. I will therefore make a generalisation to keep this blog post more comprehensive.) The insecurely attached dog is commonly known as the Velcro Dog, clinging to the owner and constantly following the owner around. Many dog owners are very flattered by this behaviour and will proudly claim "My dog is so attached to me that it even follows me to the bathroom!". Although it might at times make people feel needed and valued, this is not the type of attachment we want to promote in our dogs.
Holmes (John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, 1993) describes the condition as the following: “To feel attached is to feel safe and secure. An insecurely attached person may have a mixture of feelings towards their attachment figure: intense love and dependency, fear of rejection, irritability and vigilance.”
Let’s go back and look at the threat situation. Attachment behaviour (like moving closer to the caregiver) is activated by threat. Upon reunion with the caregiver, the system is deactivated. When there is no threat present, the animal is free to explore and play. A dog which feels the need to constantly be in physical contact with, or in proximity to the owner, is thus to some extent under constant stress. Approaching the owner would usually make a dog regain confidence so that it can resume whatever it was doing, and get on with its day. For an insecurely attached dog, staying permanently glued to the owner does not provide satisfaction, and the feeling of safety and comfort is never restored. Reunion thus no longer terminates the system. If the dog is separated from the owner, even if the owner is just a few meters away, the stress will increase, and the dog will feel frustrated and anxious, and display behaviours like panting, whining or even trembling. Some dogs will learn to give up trying to reach the owner if it is out of sight and hearing distance, and may show clingy behaviours in the house, but no separation anxiety if the owner leaves completely.
How To Help The Clingy Dog
I think we can all agree that this is not a healthy state for any dog to be in. The goal of any training should be to create a confident and independent dog which is happy to explore the world on its own. The presence of the owner should add to the dog’s feeling of safety, and enable the dog to do so, rather than becoming a burden. The relationship with the owner should be a positive one based on trust, without creating an unhealthy amount of dependency.
If you already have a Velcro Dog – there is still hope! The first thing I would do is to start reinforcing the dog for staying at a distance from you. Teach the dog to stay on a dog bed on command. Begin by practicing it in the evenings when everything is calm, and the dog wants to rest, and slowly make it more difficult by moving around the room, or briefly leaving the room. When you teach the dog to stay on a dog bed, let it drag a leash at first. When the dog gets up, you can simply walk over and pick up the leash without looking at or talking to the dog. This prevents the dog from being reinforced for leaving the bed, which could teach it that breaking command gets your attention. You can also drop some treats on the dog bed at irregular intervals to reinforce the dog for staying in that place. Make sure that you only do so when the dog is sitting or lying down calmly and settling, and never if the dog is whining or just got up. You can also give the dog a chew toy or bone on its bed to make it a nice place for the dog to be. If you want to begin practicing leaving the room while the dog stay’s in its bed it can be useful if you can be helped by someone. If the dog gets up, the second person will bring it back to its bed. If not, the dog will only learn that leaving the dog bed can make you return.
There is much more to creating a securely attached dog than what could possibly be covered by this blog post. The relationship with your dog may among other things depend on the dog’s previous relationships (or interrupted ones), what personality you and your dog have, in what ways you interact, and whether those interactions are based on cooperation or conflict, how reliable and consistent you seem to your dog, whether you protect your dog and advocate for it, how much your dog can trust you, how sensitive you are to your dog’s emotions and its stress signs, or how good you are at reading its body language. It's a pretty complex topic. Nonetheless I hope that this post has given you a good starting point. Any questions at all, drop us a comment on Facebook or Instagram and we will do our best to answer it. If you found this post interesting or helpful, share it with your friends! :) We really appreciate it!