While Freud’s research allowed us to blame our parents for our social abilities as adults, it turns out our dogs might be able to do the same with us!
Owners form attachment bonds with their dogs much the same as human babies form bonds with their parents. On the scale of attachment we can classify those that are more “anxiously attached” and those that are more “avoidantly attached”. Someone who is anxiously attached needs very close reciprocal bonds with their parent/dog, out of fear of losing them, while someone who is avoidantly attached prefers to be more distant to guard themselves against the hurt of future potential loss.
In a recent research published by Pet Behaviour Science (Jessica et al. 2016; Pet Behaviour Science Vol 1, p 31-46), 75 pet dogs and their owners participated in an investigation at Monash University involving a series of trials where a human experimenter pointed or gazed at one of two food bowls to indicate the location of a hidden food reward.
This ‘object choice task’ was performed on two separate occasions, once after the dog received an intranasal spray of oxytocin, a chemical renowned for enhancing sociality, and once after receiving a placebo spray of only saline. Owners completed questionnaires evaluating both their perceived abilities of their dog, together with an assessment of their attachment to the dog.
A dogs’ natural ability to perform the task was taken to be their performance after the placebo spray. It was found that an owner’s ‘style’ of attachment to his/her dog may affect how likely a dog is to respond to human social cues. Our findings demonstrated that dogs owned by more anxious owners are less inclined to follow human pointing. Furthermore, dogs owned by people who believed that their emotions were ‘contagious’ to their dogs were more inclined to respond to human gazes. However, dogs became resistant to owners’ influence on their social cognitive performance after receiving an intranasal spray of oxytocin.
In a previous study we revealed that dogs’ abilities to perform object choice tasks are enhanced by oxytocin and therefore this may explain why their performance was not able to be predicted by their owners. However, exactly how oxytocin does this remains unknown. One possibility is that oxytocin enhances a dogs’ ability to understand human gestures, or, in light of the findings that anxious attachment was associated with poorer ‘natural’ performance using pointing cues, it could be possible that oxytocin, also known to decrease anxiety, reduces the anxiety these dogs ‘absorb’ from their ‘anxiously attached’ owners, thereby disinhibiting their natural cognitive ability.
Results suggest that a dog’s ‘natural’ ability to follow human pointing cues can be hindered by an anxiously attached owner, whilst a dog’s ‘natural’ ability to follow human gazing is enhanced by the owners belief that dogs are empathic towards them. This has implications for training dogs, both for working roles and for pet obedience, which may be complicated by the attachment style of the handler/owner, or potentially made easier by the administration of oxytocin!
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