Attachment: Processes, Disorders and Tools
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2005
Claude Beata, DVM, Behaviorist GNFVS, ECVBM-CA Charter Diplomate

Attachment is a word used in the actual meaning by Bowlbya, who developed his theory according to Harlow's work upon monkeys and Spitz's work on mortality in orphanages just after the Second World War.

It describes the instinctive process that builds the link between the mother and the newborn.

Species which have evolved and gained in importance all along the phylum are attachment species. For Bowlby, the primary goal of attachment is the protection against predators. For him, attachment is not the result of the satisfaction of primary needs. For example, alarm and dangerous situations do active attachment behaviours. But attachment will have predictable results, such as appeasement, better protection against cold temperature, easier feeding. All these facts are the consequence of the short distance between the newborn and the attachment object (the mother in the great majority of cases).

In our familiar dogs and cats, attachment is a complex process. Beside the primary and physiological described facts, attachment will allow important learning, such as self-control, social communication and knowledge of different stimuli of the environment. Without attachment, there is no possible exploration. Administration of clomipramine in very young kittens provoke a sudden detachment and these animals don't sleep anymore along the body of their mother; they stay alone. When they are awaken, they explore very poorly and are not able to enrich their primary database. For us, most of behaviour disorders are bond to the lack--or related with the nature--of the primary attachment.

1. Attachment and behaviour pathology

It is interesting to see that important authors don't give the same importance to the attachment as a root of equilibrium and pathology.

1.1 Anglo-Saxon approach

We can't find a common opinion between different authors. Separation anxiety is the point where many of them speak about over-attachment or hyper-attachment. But even for this topic there is not a general agreement.

1.1.1 Voith and Borcheltb

In the book "Readings in companion animal-Behavior" , Victoria Voith and Peter Borchelt underline that " separation anxiety also may occur when the owner is out of the home and the dog is left with other dogs, cats or even with other humans". This shows that the primary attachment relationship is involved in the problem. The proposed therapy does not address this point.

1.1.2 Landsberg and Horwitzc

These two authors , Gary Landsberg from Canada and Debbie Horwitz from USA, clearly bind the separation anxiety with overattachment. "Separation anxiety describes dogs that are overly attached or dependent on family members" Part of the proposed therapy try to break the bond at home by training the dog in staying alone in a separate room.

1.1.3 Overalld

In her book, seen by many people as a reference, Karen Overall tries to demonstrate that attachment is not a key for understanding behaviour disorders. "Attachment does not cause problems" or "The necessary and sufficient conditions for canine separation anxiety do not include the attachment criteria". The author, according to a statistical analysis excludes the hyper attachment as key symptom.

So we can see that attachment is rarely seen as a root of behaviour disorders and eventually only for separation anxiety.

1.2 Latin school

1.2.1 Pageate

In his book, Patrick Pageat gives more importance to the attachment.

He relates the different and very important periods of attachment from the mothers to the puppies, then from the puppies to the mother; he explains also how crucial can be the detachment period.

Early Detachment Depression and Separation Anxiety are the two main affections related to attachment disorders.

Total lack or excessive amount of attachment are the triggers of the affections.

1.2.2 Beataf

In my memoir for the French Diploma, I tried to show that attachment was the root of many behaviour disorders, the main root for some of them, an important or only a secondary one for other affections. Obviously separation anxiety but also primary dyssocialization, deprivation syndrome, hypersensitivity-hyperactivity syndrome (HsHa). In this first work, we were asking the question of another classification of the attachment to fit better with the clinical findings.

2. Analogy of processes

One important point is to try to show that the bind between the puppy and the human being is similar with the bind between the puppy and the mother. This seems obvious but as always, the most obvious things are often difficult to prove.

In her memoir for the French Diploma, Dr Florence May set up a study using a modified version of the Ainsworth's Strange situation7. This has been already done by different teams but always with adult dogs. We thought that it is more precise to test only puppies at a standard age;

With quite sixty pairs of dogs and owners, and hours of video recording and observation, Dr May could demonstrate that effectively dogs are attached to their owners.

Even more interesting, starting from these video tapes, in a work already published8g, we could split different populations of dogs according to different kinds of reactions during the Ainsworth's Strange situation.

Without just pasting what does exist in human psychology, we can now establish what we have been thinking: different kinds of attachment exist also in dogs.

3. Proposal for a new tool for the practitioner

The question is: Do we have to analyse attachment in terms of amount or in terms of nature? In terms of quantity or in terms of quality?

The interest of categorising attachment is to treat in different ways and more to prevent different affections, such as separation anxiety or secondary hyperaattachment but also deprivation syndromes and other development disorders.

 Secure dogs are less sensible to attachment-related disorders.

 Insecure dogs are a large majority in behaviour disorders practice

 In avoidant dogs, the therapy must include a way in enhancing attachment behaviours.

 Anxious/ambivalent dogs need very early to live in a very clear communication. Owners have to learn how to relax the dog and to enhance at the same time the self-confidence and the confidence towards humans.

To evaluate the quality of attachment is a relevant and necessary step in a behaviour consultation to precise the pathological state, to understand the pathological way and to build the therapy.

The adapted strange situation is a good tool for the practitioner to preview what kind of attachment could be a good marker of vulnerability.


a. Bowlby J. Attachement et Perte; Tome 1: L'Attachement PUF 1996
b. Voith V., Borchelt P. Readings in Companion Animal-Behavior, Veterinary Learning Systems Editor, Trenton, 1996
c. Landsberg G, Horwitz D. Behavior of Dogs and Cats, Questions and Answers, Lifelearn Editor, Guelf, 1998
d. Overall K. Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals, Mosby Editor, St-Louis,1997
e. Pageat P. Pathologie de Comportement du Chien, Le Point Vétérinaire Editeur, Maisons-Alfort, 1° edition, 1995
f. Beata C. L'attachement, Racine de l'équilibre et de la pathologie comportementale, Mémoire pour le diplôme de vétérinaire comportementaliste, ENVT 1998
g. May F., Deputte B., & Beata C. Experimental study of a puppy-owner relationship in the adoption period, Poster Glasgow 2004

Speaker Information
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Claude Beata, DVM, Behaviorist GNFVS, ECVBM-CA Charter Diplomate

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