by Molly Gabler-Smith, Postdoc, functional morphologist
With summer ending, many beaches are now allowing dogs during peak times of the day. This is particularly exciting because my husband and I love walking along the beach in the late morning, and now we can finally bring our dog Silas who loves digging in the sand and splashing in the ocean. I may be a bit biased, but I like to think that I have a special bond with Silas. One different than my husband. Perhaps that is because I consider myself the more doting and “let things slide” one, whereas my husband is more of a trainer and rewarder: though he definitely has a soft side for Silas too! I’ve always wondered about the bond humans have with their companion animals, whether they be a cat, a dog or even a snake!
Silas enjoying the views at the beach. He was so happy, he dug himself a hole to lay in.
We take Silas to the dog park pretty frequently, since he is a mix of high energy breeds (e.g. lab, German Shepard, border collie and Brittany spaniel). I always find myself watching all of the other owners and the varying relationships between them and their dogs. These relationships vary from the owner who brings their dog and sits at a picnic table, scrolling through their phone while their dog happily plays with other canines; to the owner who is constantly aware of their dog’s every move and calls them back frequently when they interact with the other dogs at the park. What’s fascinating is that all of these relationships are totally unique to each owner and dog!
Though I am not the only dog-owner/scientist interested in these interactions. Dr. Monique Udell, at Oregon State University, has spent her academic career studying these very interactions and social bonds! She was recently featured as a guest scientist on The Science Pawdcast,(see link to it below) in which high school chemistry teacher, Jason Zackowski, interviews scientists along with providing fascinating dog facts. It’s a unique format and just plain heartwarming.
If you don’t already listen to the podcast, I suggest you subscribe to it and follow his two adorable dogs (Bunsen and Beaker) on Twitter (@bunsenbernerbmd). You won’t regret it!
As she described in the interview with Zackowski, Dr. Udell uses her combined background in zoology and psychology to study the bond between animals and people, particularly focused on the social development of dogs and wolves. In some of her recent work, she studied why dogs have been so successful around humans and how dogs are really good at picking up social cues from their owners. For example, most of her studies focus on how dogs pay attention to and how well they use information that humans provide to them. This is often times tested by filling different containers with food, pointing at the one with the food, and seeing how the dog use the pointing to find the correct container. They found that dogs raised with humans (who often have many opportunities to experience pointing and other cues) do very well in these tests.
Additionally, Dr. Udell and her colleagues have been interested in determining the types of attachment theory (which historically have been used to identify human-human relationships), from the animal’s perspective. They have found that attachment models similar to the ones seen in adult and children or newborns is very similar to the bond observed between dogs and their owners. This is not surprising as owners provide caretaking and protection to our dogs their entire lives. What is interesting, is that Udell has identified that some dogs have secure attachments: these are bonds where the animal utilizes the human as a secure base, like the dog at the dog park who can run around independently, but frequently checks in with their owner.
In other cases, dogs may form insecure attachments. Dogs with insecure attachments are still bonded with their human, but the caregiver’s presence doesn’t fully alleviate the dog’s stress (i.e. a dog at the veterinarian’s office seeking comfort from their owner by hiding behind their legs). What is interesting about these attachments, is that they can be changed! The behavior of the caregiver matters a lot!
Animals are likely to form a secure attachment with owners that provide consistent/reliable feedback and who also have a more positive and warm demeanor. For more information about her most recent work, check out her recently published paper in the Integrative and Comparative Biology Journal’s newest issue, investigating the relationship between dog-human and dog-dog relationships.
If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Monique Udell’s research, head on over to her lab’s website here. She also studies human-cat relationships too!
Blog written by Molly Gabler-Smith (@MarBioMoll)
& Visit our SICB Fine Art America site(profits going towards SICB student funds) for canine sci gear
Our past blog on The Science Pawdcast 2020