Attachment and the Human-Animal Bond

If you are familiar with us and our pet family, you know that Suzanne has been very attached to our Irish setter, ever since we acquired Coral as a 7 week old puppy.  Suzanne has sometimes – against her better judgment as a behaviorist – let Coral get away with more than she should. She loves to watch Coral while she sleeps, and just loves that special setter smell of her fur (it's her opinion that each breed has their own special scent).

While Dan is also attached to Coral and thinks she's a cutie, there is a real difference between us. He isn't as "gaga" over her as Suzanne. Why do such differences develop between people in their attachments to pets? Studies from animal behavior as well as social psychology give us clues about the factors that influence our attachments.

First is the amount of time spent with one another. The more time together, the stronger the attachment is likely to be. Both of us are lucky to be able to spend lots of time with our pets. So it's not surprising that both of us have relatively strong mutual bonds with not only Coral, but our Dalmatian Ashley and our cat Buffet when he was alive. For people who are away from home a lot and can't spend as much time with their pets, the bonds may not be as strong. The same thing might happen if a pet spends most of its time outside rather than inside the house with the family.

Pleasant physical contact, through feeding, play and petting also strengthens bonds. We're lucky to be able to spend a lot of time playing with Coral, taking her for walks, playing with her in the backyard, and even training her from time to time (not as often as we would like!). Suzanne tends to do more cuddling with Coral than Dan, which probably has a positive, feedback effect on her attachment. Suzanne cuddles Coral and becomes more attached to her, the more attached she is, the more she cuddles her, etc. We may not become as attached to pets that either don't enjoy or don't tolerate as much physical contact.

Punishment seems to disrupt most bonds, as you might expect. Hitting our pets or scaring them can weaken their bonds with us. We're not likely to have strong bonds with animals that bite us, scare us or destroy our stuff, which are unpleasant consequences for us.

Our prior experiences with other pets are also important influences. Suzanne's stronger attachment to Coral is probably partially due to her long experience with other dogs (Suzanne has lived with dogs longer than Dan). Suzanne also had another Irish setter, Blaze, quite a few years ago, who she had a very special and unique bond with. Those strong feelings for Blaze have probably facilitated her attachment to Coral.

Understanding attachment is important, because research has shown that people are more likely to give up an animal to a shelter when their attachments to them are weak. Helping people develop and strengthen their attachments to their pets can help pets stay in their homes, can increase the joy and benefits for us of sharing our lives with animals and allow both people and pets to lead happier, longer lives.

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