The Strange Situation Test

Between April and June we have been running an experiment at the Royal Dick Veterinary Hospital, measuring dogs’ attachment to their owners using a version of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test. The experiments were part of a larger study looking at personality, interactions and mutual attachment.

First of all, I want to thank everyone who took their time to share our study, fill in our online survey and attend the experiment. We really appreciate your help. Without you, this project would not be possible. We managed to run 68 experiments, and had 690 people filling it in online!

The experiment we ran is based on a test developed by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to study toddlers’ attachment to their mothers. It has since then been adapted to measure dogs’ attachment to their owners. The test consists of seven episodes during which the dog’s behaviour is recorded in the absence and presence of the owner and a stranger.

The experiment took place in a veterinary consultation room that contained two chairs, a water bowl, and a couple of toys. The owner and stranger (played by our assistant Miguel) were instructed to ignore the dog most of the time, and only to briefly interact with it if it wanted attention. This was to record the dog’s behaviour with little influence from the humans. The structure of the experiment was the following:

Episode I: Owner and dog enter the room. (3min)

Episode II: Stranger enters the room and sits quietly (1min). Stranger talks to owner (1min). Stranger plays with dog (1min).

Episode III: Owner leaves the room. Stranger attempts to play with the dog again. (3min) – First Separation

Episode IV: Owner enters the room, and stranger leaves the room. (3min) – First reunion.

Episode V: Owner leaves the room, dog is alone. (3min) – Second separation.

Episode VI: Stranger enters the room. (3min)

Episode VII: Owner enters the room, stranger leaves the room. (3min) – Second reunion

Attachment has previously been described as indicated by a preference for attachment figure (the dog owner or the mother) to the stranger, attempts to maintain contact and seek proximity to the person, as well as having secure base effects.

Attachment behaviour is usually triggered by external threat or danger, or internal states like hunger or pain. It is often expressed through attempts to promote and restore proximity or contact with the attachment figure. This often results in distress when separated from the attachment figure, and greeting upon reunion. If the dog or child would get anxious due to the presence of the stranger, it might also approach the dog owner or mother for comfort or reassurance.

The attachment figure can also act as a secure base, meaning that the dog or child would feel more comfortable to explore the room, engage with the stranger, and play when the owner or mother was present than when the owner was absent.

For children, four types of attachment have been identified. It is not yet known if the same categories apply to dogs. First is secure attachment which is characterised by more exploration when the mother is present, distress when separated, but can be comforted by the stranger. Second is insecure avoidant attachment, characterized by little exploration, little distress when left, no preference over the mother or stranger, and avoiding the mother upon her return. Third is insecure ambivalent attachment, again characterized by little exploration, but distressed when left, wary of stranger, and ambivalent towards the mother on return. Finally we have insecure disorganized attachment characterized by little exploration, freezing and stereotyped movements upon reunion, as well as contradictory behaviours.

Some of the behaviours we looking at in dogs are exploration, independent play, social play (with owner or stranger), proximity, orientation and contact with the owner and the stranger, movement, different postures (stand, sit, down), and vocalisations. We will also compare the behaviours during the different episodes. The dog’s response to the return of the owner is also measured in intensity, and duration, with an interest in how long it takes for the dog to recover from the separation.

The next step for us is to code all of the video material by measuring the duration or frequency of a number of behaviours, and then analyse it to see how it relates to other variables like behaviour problems, personality, interactions, and the owner’s attachment to the dog. The whole analysis will take a few months, but I am really excited to find out what the results will be like! If you have signed up for the email list, we will send you the results once they are ready. If not, just subscribe to our blog and they will be sent directly to you.

We will be running a second observational experiment in the spring of 2016. If you are interested in taking part, send me an email at, and I will add you to our email list.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s