Not just a dog: an attachment theory perspective on relationships with assistance dogs

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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I explored individuals’ relationships with an assistance dog and their experiences of loss from an attachment-theory perspective. I used a hybrid process of inductive and deductive thematic methods to analyze semi-structured interviews with 25 participants. These analyses revealed genuine attachment processes of safe haven and secure base. Although attachment dynamics were an important feature of these relationships, caregiving appeared to be an equally important dynamic. When confronted with the loss of their dog, the vast majority of participants experienced intense grief. In some cases, these responses were consistent with the experience of losing an attachment figure. However, most responses were consistent with the loss of a caregiving relationship. Participants reported using a wide variety of strategies to cope with the loss of their assistance dog; some strategies involved attempts to avoid painful emotions, whereas others involved confronting the loss. The application of an attachment-theory perspective to the human-animal bond suggests that intense grief is a natural response to the loss of a beloved companion who fulfilled fundamental human needs for attachment and caregiving.
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