Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., ABPP: Child, Adult, & Family Psychology

Selected Works by Dr. Goldenthal

Nonfiction
A parenting book providing answers to questions about sibling conflicts
Professional Book
This book presents the theory, concepts, and techniques of Contextual Therapy, a unique and powerful thereapeutic approach especially suited to helping children and adolescents.

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Therapy and the Human-Dog Bond

You, Your Dog, Your Attachment Style, and Your Healing

September 18, 2015

Tags: dogs, human-dog bond, attachment, therapy

Each of us has his or her way of forming attachments to other people. This “attachment pattern” develops during infancy and early childhood and persists throughout life. Although you can’t do very much to change your attachment pattern, sometimes called an “attachment style,” you can learn about it, and how it affects you. The wonderful bond you share with your dog can help you learn about your attachment style.

Why might you want to learn about your attachment style? Because the quality of your relationships with other people, especially the quality of your intimate relationships, is hugely affected by the way that your style of attachment meshes or does not mesh with the other person’s.

Among developmental psychologists and psychoanalysts, discussions of attachment can become quite abstract and complex, with numerous categories and subcategories, and debates about research methodology and developmental course. For many people who want to understand themselves better, however, it often comes down to one question: “Are you secure about your relationships and about close attachments, or are you anxious and insecure about attachments? Some people are highly conflicted about attachment and tend to be avoidant as a way of trying to resolve that conflict, but that involves a different set of issues.

Unusually for psychological concepts, those describing attachment styles just what they sound like they should. People who easily form secure attachments are comfortable with their attachments to other people. They can tolerate separations, both brief and longer, without worrying that the attachment has been broken. They act and feel as if their attachments will persist without needing much in the way of reassurance.

People who are insecure and and anxious about attachments need quite a bit more in the way of reassurance that the attachment is still there and are likely to be more or less anxious about separations, and also about conflicts and disagreements, even if they may seem minor to other people.

Knowing about your own attachment style can be very useful in lots of ways, including deciding if a potential partner is right for you and managing anxieties about relationships. But determining your own attachment style is not so easy. It is, however, a place where your connection with your dog can help a lot, especially if you can allow yourself to be fully aware of your feelings about the dog.

Even though extreme examples are not totally realistic, they are still worth thinking about. At the extreme of an avoidant or conflicted attachment style would be a person who is afraid of forming a connection with a dog because dogs can be so emotional and demanding. At the other extreme might be a person who becomes highly anxious whenever her dog is out of sight: that’s an example of anxious attachment. The person who enjoys the close connection with her dog when they are together but is not upset by a temporary separation may be said to have a secure attachment.

Attachment affects relationships in powerful, but often unconscious, ways. That’s where your relationship with your dog can be healing and therapeutic. Your dog’s connection to you and love for you is unconditional. The exuberant greeting when you arrive at home, whether you have been gone for fifteen minutes, three weeks, or three months is a clear demonstration of your dog’s fidelity and love. Even if your personal history is marked by early separations –something that often leads to anxiety about attachment–you can be sure that your dog will always remember you, love you, and be happy to see you.

If you are a person for whom attachment has so consistently been fraught with anxiety that you’ve never known anything else, the constant, reliable, and trustworthy attachment with your dog can give you an experience of secure attachment. It can be healing. After experiencing a secure attachment with your dog, you will begin to be able to recognize how anxiety about attachment is affecting close relationships with important people in your life. You will begin to notice how anxiety about attachment colors your relationships with people. Even if you attachment style never changes–and it probably won’t– and even if your bond with your dog remains the least stressful relationship in your life–and it probably will–being aware of your anxious attachment style will lessen its power over your human relationships.