“We talk of men keeping dogs, but we might often talk more expressively of dogs keeping men.” Charles Dickens –The Uncommerical Traveller– (1859)
I am one of those people that found the study of human-animal interaction as fortunate consequence of pursuing another line of inquiry. My career as a psychologist and professor has been spent focusing on the psychology of men. This involves the culturally conditioned ways males are taught to think, feel, and act. Too often, the rules for being a man lead to internal and interpersonal difficulties, impacting health and wellness. By comparison to the themes of masculine-conflict, I have also heard men share various kinds of personal anecdotes about the importance of canine companions in their lives. These are heartfelt accounts about their dogs, large and small. Sometimes they begin with regret, other times humor, and even a sense of nostalgia. I think the animal companion stories are special in part because they involve a genuinely caring recollection of man’s best friend. But what is also striking is how men also share a part of themselves not always seen, a more relational side. That is the part involving the need for making and sustains connections – a pronouncement contrary to what many deem as an essential quality of mature masculinity – being alone.
It is important to note even now, I do not pretend that the aforementioned masculine difficulties are not directly relevant within my own life. That being the case actually makes it easier to feel a certain sympathy if not empathy, for male clients and friends falling prey to similar masculine maxims. My own experience in striving to become more relational has multiple sources but I would rank my bond with animal companions as being among the most influential.
I have had a long personal history with canine companions stretching back to being a boy. I grew up in a blended working-class family of eight kids and two often frustrated parents. There were numerous sources of stress– financial, emotional, and interpersonal. In stark contrast to those familial themes, I found a consistent source of support from our dog. I would set on the back steps of our little house and share with him the current events from the other side of the brick wall. He seemed to be present in a way that no one else could muster. These interactions created a hope that the bond with animal friends could be a different and more perhaps fulfilling connection than most others I knew.
As an adult, I have had two special animal companions. Kelsey was a golden retriever that I adopted from a shelter when I was in graduate school living in Texas. She was my portable family and best friend through those years and a portion of my early career. She left a sizable hole in my life when passing away nearly thirteen years ago. Fortunately, I had another shelter dog named Sadie who profoundly impacted me as well over the sixteen and half years we shared. Her eyes changed color to a lighter shade of brown when staring at me in her concerned way. My wife says that Sadie’s special gaze was reserved only for me. I am not sure that was accurate but her presence in my life did makes me feel cared for in a unique way. This summer, I said goodbye to Sadie. Her last six months were marked by declining health which left us both awake through much of the night. Sometimes as we sat outside in the darkness, I would stare up at the constellations in the night sky. I do not think I will ever look at the Dog Star in the same way again.
Part of what I have learned in regard to the importance of the human-animal bond in my life, is that is a complicated part of my own personal narrative that carries a distinct meaning. One of the ways I have tried to comprehend the bond’s significance is through the psychological concept of being an attachment figure.
In its original usage, an attachment figure was defined by psychoanalyst John Bowlby as a caregiver with whom a child forms a deep and lasting emotional bond.1 More specifically, an attachment figure offers a special type of connection that is exceptionally important, involving qualities that seem irreplaceable. While a meaningful tie can be made with a number of friends, teachers, and family members, the place of an attachment figure is unique in our lives. The first element of what an attachment figure provides is referred to as a secure base from which children can explore the world. This aspect of an attachment figure helps one’s personality mature and take on new, previously unrealized dimensions. As children we try to make new friends, take in novel experiences and after falling down in many endeavors, dust ourselves off, and get back up. None of this comes easily, so it helps having someone in our corner challenging us to get back out there. Another facet of an attachment figure involves providing predictable comfort in stressful times. This is referred to as being a safe haven. Bowlby talked about the important hardwired aspect of the human need to find safety when threatened or in danger. Instead of burrowing into a den like other mammals, the preference is to nuzzle into the arms or care of an attachment figure. Needless to say, this quality is something everyone seeks with a caregiver as a child, and then later as adult, with a human significant other or a close friend.
Over time, the attachment figure concept that originated as a description of the caregiver-child relationship has been expanded and now is also applied within adult romantic relationships and the bonds many of us share with animal companions.2 Across all these scenarios, our attachment figures represent a lifeline providing a source of comfort when in distress and the encouragement to grow when facing difficult life challenges.
Would the aforementioned attachment figure concepts also apply to the bond between man and dog? Recent research suggests they do for both boys and men alike. New studies conducted by friends and colleagues that appear in “Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man’s Best Friend”3 found evidence that males across the lifespan perceive their canine companions as offering a special type of emotional support as well as offering a challenge to become better parents, partners, and friends. At-risk boys participating in various forms of dog training programs (usually with hard to adopt dogs from the shelter) became more relationally proficient. Findings included increased Emotional Quotient (or EQ), better self-awareness, and decreased externalizing behaviors usually associated with being part of the adjudicated juvenile system. There are also studies that found middle-aged men reporting being more attached to their dogs than younger men. Likewise, men of a certain age conveyed how their animal companions acted as a sort of psychological multi-tasker, performing various functions like instilling hope, expanding social network, and being a source of comfort. Perhaps key to note is how these various safe heaven and safe base roles performed by dogs were associated with decreases in what has been referred to as Normative Male Alexithymia4 —the difficulty dialing into what one feels and being able to convey it to others—the quintessential male conundrum that keeps many of us alone.
There is much more work to do in understanding the significance of the bond in men’s lives, but I feel like I have some company now as I untangle more of why the bond has been so impactful both for others and myself. I would go so far as saying my canine companions changed the course of my life. There is not a singular reason for that impact, looking for that one all-encompassing explanation was the thing that kept me puzzled for many years. Instead there are multiple complex reasons involving the intersection of attachment issues, male socialization, and perhaps others factors waiting to be discovered that help account for the importance of our bond.
Attachment theory argues that humans are hard-wired to form and sustain attachments with others across the life span. Ironically much of traditional male psychology flies in the face of that pronouncement, needing others is a violation of traditional masculinity. Yet, there are exceptions to the restrictive rules that many men experience when in the presence of animal companions—in this case, those dogs that by definition are like friends or family members and perhaps are best classified as attachment figures. Going for a walk, playing in the backyard, and sensing we are being attuned to when having a bad day, are all disarming encounters lulling us into letting our guard down. There are a series of physiological and psychological changes that occur as we interact. These can include an increase in the bonding hormone oxytocin when we share a mutual gaze, a decrease in our blood pressure when we stroke a dog’s fur, and a sense that someone is in sync with our current emotional or physical state. These are all attachment cues prompting us to perceive that an animal companion offers a viable and safe attachment bond. The positive impact a dog has is based on an encounter that temporally renorms years and years of male training about the do’s and don’ts of being a man. Many of us feel the grip traditional male gender roles begin to ease when in the company of animal friends, even if for only a few precious moments.
My wife tells me I am a more accessible and perhaps a more understanding person around animals, even seemingly troubled and difficult ones, giving them the benefit of the doubt when would-be human friends, family, and colleagues may not receive the same treatment. When I begin in earnest talking or writing about my experiences with dogs, I literally feel myself passing through the protective layers that do a good job of keeping others at a safe distance.
I turned 50 years old recently and with the lead up to that event, I have found myself looking inward thinking about poignant questions like what my life has been and where it is going, including discerning more about my own attempts at attachment. I married late in life after 45 years as a bachelor and am a first time father of a three year old son. For these and other important reasons, I find myself stretching my relational repertoire. But complicating matters is that this is the first time in distant memory that I have had to go-it-alone without a canine companion in my life. Yet, there is another aspect of being an attachment figure that comes into focus when I think about recently saying goodbye to my dog Sadie. It involves what is referred to as a continuing bond.
In attachment theory, a continuing bond is a new way to sustain a connection after an attachment figure passes away.5 There are many ways to find this new type of bond with human or animal companions.6 Some grief experts focus on what is referred to as posttraumatic growth – the possibility of positive psychological change as a result of struggling with challenging life circumstances. There is also the option with animal companions of finding meaning in the loss, such as fighting for cures to diseases, in the form of social activism for animal rights, or fostering shelter dogs. Some choose to create a memorial – naming a kennel after a lost animal companion – or honoring their memory through plaster paw prints. Rituals can also be enacted when special anniversaries come to mind, and are subsequently celebrated. Some form a continued bond by being part of a community where stories are shared in person, on the internet, or in the privacy of one’s own journal. The new bond can even exist by calling on a memory of an animal companion to provide a moment of togetherness, support, and guidance.
It may not come as a surprise that research suggests men may have more difficultly forming a continued bond with animal and human companions.7 The difficulties are in large part related to the stringent forms of traditional male gender roles. They can include the difficulty working through intense emotions such as grief, anger, vulnerability, and isolation. These challenges do not mean men cannot grieve or form a continued bond, rather, for some men the skillset needed to do so may need further development. Key to this personal development is reframing various forms of grief as not unmanly, which in turn gives males permission to push forward toward new levels of growth.
The continued bond I forged with my first dog Kelsey came with a significant emotional effort. It involved an intense archeological undertaking lasting many years as I uncovered and gained insight into the forces shaping my early life and beyond, those that made me a natural fit with animal friends. The process of forming a continued bond also helped me grasp how my two animal companions transformed my notion of being a man, altering it toward more relational ways of being. My inclination to lean away from others seems to melt away a little easier now because of the influence of my animal friends.
What stands out for me from recent attachment and loss research findings regarding the human-animal bond is that men do not necessarily love their dogs more or less than others. Rather, animal companions have the potential to take on a different meaning in men’s lives. If men have smaller social networks, with fewer truly close bonds, then those who are counted on carry heavier emotional connotations, and are sorely missed when gone. This may be especially true when the bond in question provides a reliable respite from the 24-7 dealings of being a man. When other life stresses are added to the already strained condition involving being a man, the result is a cumulative challenge to mental health and well-being. Situation-specific stressors can include a difficult attachment/ loss history, chronic economic strife, lack of social support, being a male with a history of incarceration, or experiencing intense military service in war-torn areas. Taken together, males’ lives become a much more complex, nuanced narrative that needs to be understood. For many of us, if the right dog comes along, there is hope.
Our animal friends can help create a special place of connection rarely seen by others, which allows some of our personal issues to be worked out, or at least provides a companion while wandering around, making sense of our inner landscape. This emotional space and the one who helps form it are not necessarily meant to be exclusionary by design. Rather, an animal companion helps many of us find the resolve to reach out and invite someone else in.
Chris Blazina is a psychologist and professor at New Mexico State University. He has published six books including his most recent efforts, “When Man Meets Dog” which was awarded the 2016 National Indie Excellence Award for Men’s Health. His other recent book, co-edited with Lori Kogan is “Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man’s Best Friend.” It is the first academic book to examine the bond between males and their canine companions.
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- Blazina, C. & Kogan, L. (2016). Men and Their Dogs: A New Psychological Understanding of ‘Man’s Best Friend. New York: Springer.
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Packman,W., Bussolari, C., Katz, R., and Carmack, B.J. (2016). Continuing Bonds Research with Animal Companions: Implications for Men Grieving the Loss of a Dog. In C. Blazina & L. Kogan (Eds)., Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of ‘Man’s Best Friend. New York: Springer.
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