Owner-dog bond: Foundations, Interactions, and Influences

Feb 23, 2023 | Interesting Articles

The unique owner-dog bond bond between humans and dogs dates back tens of thousands of years and has been shaped by a complex interplay of genetics, anthropology, and evolutionary biology. This relationship is built on a foundation of mutual trust, companionship, and protection, evolving into a strong connection that remains an integral part of modern society. Dogs, known scientifically as Canis lupus familiaris, are mammals classified under the order Carnivora and belong to the family Canidae. The domestication of dogs is estimated to have taken place around 30,000 years ago when humans and ancient wolves began to form partnerships.

Domestication of Dogs

Owner with a loving dog

The domestication of dogs is thought to have transpired through a process called domestication. In this process, wolves that displayed less aggression and greater tolerance toward human presence were more likely to survive and reproduce. Gradually, these wolves evolved into the domesticated dogs familiar to us today.

The relationship between the owner-dog bond is unparalleled, as dogs are the only domesticated animals that have evolved to live in close proximity to humans. This bond has been moulded by thousands of years of evolution and mutual adaptation, leading to a profound connection between the two species.

Exploring the Evolutionary Connection Between Humans and Dogs for Improved Understanding and Care

Studying the phylogeny of humans and dogs can shed light on the evolution of behaviour and social cognition in both species and reveal how the human-dog relationship has developed over time. Furthermore, comprehending the evolutionary history of dogs can enhance our understanding of their behaviour, enabling better training and care.

The owner-dog dyad is a multifaceted relationship influenced by factors such as genetics, past experiences, and the quality of interactions between the dog and owner. It is marked by emotional, behavioural, and physiological interconnections and mutual influence.

In contemporary times, domestic dogs have been utilised in various contexts that capitalize on their skills and responsiveness to human direction, such as:

  • Farming
  • Hunting
  • Security & protection
  • Human assistance

Previously, the relationship was considered unidirectional, contingent on the function the dog was meant to perform. However, more recent perspectives describe the human-dog dyad as bidirectional, emphasising the significance and impact of human interaction on the dog’s intended function (Topál et al., 1998).

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The Reciprocal Relationship of Owner-Dog Bond

Research reveals that the owner-dog dyad is a two-way relationship, where one member’s behaviour and emotional state can influence the other’s. For example:

  • A well-trained and well-behaved dog positively impacts the owner’s emotional well-being
  • A supportive and nurturing owner positively influences the dog’s behaviour

Human-Dog Attachment: Emotions and Proximity

Loving owner with a dog

The study of human-dog attachment has focused on the close, emotional bond between the two species. This bond is similar to the caregiver-infant relationship in humans (Bowlby, 1958). Consequently, domestic dogs have developed attachment behaviours, such as:

  • Proximity-seeking as a coping strategy for stress (Schöberl et al., 2012)
  • Exhibiting separation-related distress behaviours in the absence of an attachment figure

Attachment as a Product of Maturation

Topál et al. (1998) describe attachment as a product of maturation, presuming the following factors: a) The ability to discriminate and respond differently to the object of attachment b) A preference for the attachment figure c) A distinct response to separation from and reunion with the attachment figure

Evaluating Dog-Human Attachment: Separation and Reunion

One of the primary methods of evaluating dog-human attachment is examining separation and reunion. In Ainsworth’s (1969) study, several types of attachments manifested during owner departure, absence, and return. The Strange Situation Test (Ainsworth, 1969) is a logical method for analysing human-dog attachment.

The study by Topál et al. (1998) included 51 owners and 51 dogs, with participants ranging in age, gender, and breed. The experimental conditions were analogous to Ainsworth’s (1969) original study. The test effectively activated attachment behaviour in human-dog dyads, influenced by the shared 10,000 years of phylogenetic interaction during the domestication process (Driscoll, Macdonald, and O’Brien, 2009).

Understanding Attachment Categories

Ainsworth’s (1969) Strange Test revealed differing attachment categories, as demonstrated by:

  • Increased exploration and frequent playing with the caregiver present, resulting in a secure-base effect
  • Dogs standing at the door during separation, suggesting a preference for owners during stressful situations
  • Active and contact-seeking behaviour upon owner and dog reunion

The study found that age and gender of humans or dogs had no immediate effect on behavioural variability. However, dogs living in families with multiple members displayed less proximity-seeking behaviour towards the owner and stranger, influencing less clinging behaviour towards the owner. Breed differences showed minimal variability (Topál et al., 1998).

Impact of Age, Gender, and Living Situation

Separation-related distress behaviours are a set of actions exhibited by dogs when they are separated from their attachment figure, typically their owner or primary caregiver. These behaviours are driven by the dog’s anxiety and discomfort due to the absence of their attachment figure, and they often manifest as a variety of problematic or disruptive actions. Some common separation-related distress behaviours include:

  1. Excessive barking or howling: Dogs may vocalise loudly and persistently to express their distress and try to call for their attachment figure.
  2. Destructive chewing: Dogs may chew on furniture, shoes, or other household items in an attempt to cope with their anxiety or frustration.
  3. Inappropriate elimination: Some dogs may urinate or defecate indoors when they are separated from their attachment figure, even if they are otherwise well house-trained.
  4. Pacing or restlessness: An anxious dog may pace back and forth or appear restless in the absence of their owner, unable to settle down or relax.
  5. Attempted escape: In extreme cases, dogs may try to escape from the house or yard in an effort to reunite with their attachment figure, which can be dangerous if they manage to get loose.
  6. Depression or lethargy: Some dogs may become withdrawn or lethargic when separated from their attachment figure, showing a lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy.
  7. Clinginess or increased attachment: Upon the owner’s return, dogs experiencing separation-related distress may become overly attached, clingy, or needy, following their owner around the house and seeking constant reassurance.

Owner-Dog Bond: Key Findings

It can be concluded that higher levels of anxiety and stress result in increased attachment behaviour and acceptance in the owner-dog bond. Non-anxious dogs exhibit increased owner-avoidant behaviour, which may be attributed to low-stress conditions. This insight could help understand the origin of separation-related disorders. Stress and anxiety may set the stage for higher attachment levels and increased contact-seeking behaviour. Socialization could play a critical role in stress levels related to separation and attachment, as suggested by Topál et al. (1998).

Key Findings:

  • Higher anxiety and stress levels result in increased attachment behavior and acceptance
  • Non-anxious dogs exhibit increased owner-avoidant behaviour
  • Socialization plays a critical role in stress levels related to separation and attachment

Rescue Dogs, Wolves, and Human Avoidant Behaviour

Rescue dogs and wolves, partly due to a lack of socialisation, may exhibit more human avoidant behaviour, resulting in low acceptance and low attachment. This underscores the importance of socialisation in evaluating the human-dog dyad. Range and Virányi (2013) discussed humans as conspecifics in relation to dogs and wolves, concluding that intensive socialisation made both dogs and wolves perceive social aspects as crucial.

Impact of Insufficient Socialization:

  • Feral and semi-feral dogs and wolves are unlikely to form the necessary social bonds to display high attachment levels
  • Rescue dogs with prolonged isolation may lack adequate socialisation to exhibit high attachment levels
  • Low attachment and acceptance levels may lead to higher avoidant behaviour when interacting with humans (Udell and Wynne, 2008)

About Me

Jim Gillies, a Certified Dog Behaviourist and Trainer in Glasgow with over 10 years of experience, prioritises canine well-being through modern, science-backed methods. Handling 4000+ cases of 1-to-1 behaviour training, Jim is fully accredited, insured, and recognised for addressing various behavioural issues including aggression, separation anxiety, and more. Jim holds qualifications in level 5 (merit) Advance Diploma Canine Behaviour Management and level 6 Applied Animal Behaviour. Explore his insightful blog and podcast, sharing expert knowledge on dog training and behaviour. Certified by the IAABC, Jim’s expertise makes him a reliable choice for addressing your dog’s needs.

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  1. What’s the gist of dog domestication?
    • Domestication began with less aggressive wolves warming up to humans, evolving over time into the domestic dogs we know today.
  2. How unique is the human-dog bond?
    • It’s a one-of-a-kind bond, with dogs being the only domesticated animals evolved to live closely with humans, shaped over thousands of years.
  3. Why study human and dog evolution?
    • It sheds light on behavior evolution and enriches our understanding of dog behavior, which is helpful for better training and care.
  4. What defines the human-dog relationship?
    • It’s a two-way street influenced by genetics, past experiences, and interaction quality, marked by emotional, behavioral, and physiological connections.
  5. How are dogs utilized today?
    • They’re helpers in farming, hunting, security, protection, and human assistance, showcasing their skills and responsiveness to human direction.
  6. How has the perception of the human-dog relationship changed?
    • Earlier seen as one-way, it’s now understood as bidirectional, emphasizing the importance of human interaction on a dog’s intended function (Topál et al., 1998).
  7. What is human-dog attachment likened to?
    • It’s similar to the caregiver-infant bond in humans, with dogs seeking proximity during stress and showing distress when separated from their attachment figure.
  8. How is dog-human attachment evaluated?
    • Through separation and reunion scenarios like the Strange Situation Test (Ainsworth, 1969), analyzing behaviors during owner departure, absence, and return.
  9. Does age, gender, or living situation affect attachment?
    • Not significantly, but dogs in larger families show less clinginess, and breed differences don’t cause much variability (Topál et al., 1998).
  10. What are separation-related distress behaviors in dogs?
    • They include excessive barking, destructive chewing, inappropriate elimination, pacing, attempted escape, depression, and clinginess upon owner return.
  11. What key insights are there on anxiety, stress, and attachment?
    • Higher stress levels increase attachment behavior, while socialization can reduce stress related to separation and attachment (Topál et al., 1998).
  12. How does insufficient socialization impact dogs and wolves?
    • It may lead to more human avoidant behavior, showcasing the importance of socialization in evaluating the human-dog dyad (Range and Virányi, 2013).
  13. What’s the effect of prolonged isolation on rescue dogs?
    • They may lack adequate socialization to exhibit high attachment levels, leading to higher avoidant behavior when interacting with humans (Udell and Wynne, 2008).


  • Topál, J., Miklósi, Á., Csányi, V., and Dóka, A., (1998). Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): A new application of Ainsworth’s (1969) Strange Situation Test. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 112(3), pp.219-229.
  • Ainsworth, M.D.S., (1969). Object relations, dependency, and attachment: A theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship. Child Development, 40(4), pp.969-1025.
  • Driscoll, C.A., Macdonald, D.W., and O’Brien, S.J., (2009). From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(Supplement 1), pp.9971-9978.
  • Schöberl, I., Beetz, A., Solomon, J., Wedl, M., Gee, N., and Kotrschal, K., (2012). Social factors influencing cortisol modulation in dogs during a strange situation procedure. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7(2), pp. 99-110.
  • Range, F., and Virányi, Z., (2013). Social learning from humans or conspecifics: differences and similarities between wolves and dogs. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, p.868.
  • Udell, M.A.R., and Wynne, C.D.L., (2008). A review of domestic dogs’ (Canis familiaris) human-like behaviors: Or why behavior analysts should stop worrying and love their dogs. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 89(2), pp.247-261.

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