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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Attachment: measuring our (varying) relationships with dogs.

Hi Julie,

Right off the bat I need to say YES YES YES! 

Your last post about aggression and what we can learn from and about it WITHOUT the need to experience it was spot on. 

Are you THIS attached to your dog? (source)
You’re also right that my head is filled with glorious meta-analysis results right now, as well as perceptions and other measures (#allthemeasures!) as I start preparing my abstracts for submission to be part of the Canine Science Forum.

One of the small but quirky things I’ve noticed in the results of the perceived welfare of dogs survey, is that people seem to think their own pet dog has a much higher level of welfare than everyone else’s pet dog. Why would we think we take better care of our own dogs than anyone else? Now, this could be to do with the self-selected convenience sample of people who took the online questionnaire. Perhaps the 2,146 people who were interested and motivated enough to take the time to do the survey really are the very top of the pile of all dog owners, but I found it interesting all the same.

It got me thinking about our relationships with dogs (Ha! What’s new, right?!). I also happened to have a chat with Hal Herzog (while recording an upcoming episode of Human Animal Science) and, amongst many other things, we talked about how animals and pets aren’t universally beneficial for all people. Some people don’t even like their dogs. We know from extensive research into human psychology that our attitudes are major predictors of our behaviour. So are people who really love their animals more likely to take better care of them? (The answer is no, not always). Why is it that even people like us, who really find dogs fascinating and work with them daily, can feel more of a 'connection' with one individual dog, but not so much another?

Definitely attached to dog (source)
When faced with a question like this, how do we measure these differences scientifically? We can look at (usually self-reported by the human) measures, such as time per day spent in the company, or interacting/sharing activities with pet dogs. This is valuable, but does not necessarily indicate emotional closeness of a person to their dog.

Lucky for me, plenty of psychologists, including earlier members of the Anthrozoology Research Group have tackled this and worked hard to create scales that measure the human-animal bond. The Monash Dog-Owner Relationship Scale, or MDORS as it’s more affectionately known is a great example. MDORS is a series of questions that form a psychometrically sound and validated scale. 

This scale was developed with the assistance of over 1,000 participants and comprises 28 items (statements that you agree/disagree with on a 5 point likert-style scale) across three subscales: Dog–Owner Interaction (e.g. “How often do you play games with your dog”), Perceived Emotional Closeness (e.g. “I wish my dog and I never had to be apart”), and Perceived Costs (e.g. "It is annoying that I sometimes have to change my plans because of my dog"). A scale like this can be used not just to assess how attached people are to their pet dogs, but also to explore how these attachments might vary between dogs, and with different groups of people (e.g. from different countries, with different cultural, work experience or education backgrounds, etc.), making it a very powerful tool for researchers. 

(excerpt from Dwyer et al, 2006)
Used in conjunction with other questionnaires to investigate areas like grief at the loss of a pet, responsible pet ownership practices by owners, oxytocin levels in dogs, or human health benefits derived from pet ownership; attachment measures, like MDORS, can help us learn more about the importance of attachment to successful relationships for both human and dogs.

How many dogs are you attached to? (Flickr)
You might remember Tammie King's research, that used a modified version of the Ainsworth Strange Situation to see what dogs did when separated from their familiar person  and approached by a stranger (in her case, helping to measure the canine trait of amicability through their reaction toward the stranger). Tammie also asked owners to complete the MDORS and used the results in interpreting the canine behavioural data analysis for her PhD.

So often in our research, it's important to measure both sides of the story, because we've learned the experience of the human, or even the human's perception of the dog's experience, just don't match up to the dogs' experience.

I'm pleased to see you'll be tackling topics like these this weekend in San Francisco at the Canine Science Symposium event - yet another great line up of fantastic canine scientists sharing science for everyone:
(Source: Photo Lab Pet Photography)

Meanwhile, I'm getting back to my research and pondering if attachment might relate to perceived welfare of dogs.

Looking forward to your next update,

Mia

Further reading:

Dwyer F., Bennett P.C. & Coleman G.J. (2006). Development of the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS), Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 19 (3) 243-256. DOI:

Rohlf V.I., Bennett P.C., Toukhsati S. & Coleman G. (2010). Why Do Even Committed Dog Owners Fail to Comply with Some Responsible Ownership Practices?, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 23 (2) 143-155. DOI: 

Archer J. & Ireland J.L. (2011). The Development and Factor Structure of a Questionnaire Measure of the Strength of Attachment to Pet Dogs, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 24 (3) 249-261. DOI:

Handlin L., Nilsson A., Ejdebäck M., Hydbring-Sandberg E. & Uvnäs-Moberg K. (2012). Associations between the Psychological Characteristics of the Human–Dog Relationship and Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 25 (2) 215-228. DOI:

© Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog? 2014