Gender Differences in Owners Interacting with Pet Dogs: An Observational Study


Emanuela Prato-Previde, Istituto di Psicologia, Università degli Studi di Milano, Via T. Pini 1, 20134 Milano, Italy. E-mail:


Many studies show that people form strong affectional bonds with their dogs, treating them like family members or children. The present study investigates differences between women and men owners during interactions with their dogs, in a situation designed to investigate attachment and, thus, to promote emotional and affective responses: the Ainsworth's Strange Situation. Twenty-five dog owners, 10 men and 15 women, were observed during free interactions with their pets in an adapted version of the ‘strange situation procedure’. Their behaviour towards their pets was videorecorded. Talking to the dog was evaluated together with the occurrence of affiliative and play behaviours. The owner's level of attachment to the dog was assessed using a questionnaire. Women and men differed in the use of verbal communication. Women talked more than men and had a shorter latency in starting talking. Their utterances resembled more closely infant-directed speech or ‘motherese’. In contrast, there were no clear gender differences in affiliative and play behaviours. Both women and men engaged in play with their dogs and provided physical comfort. No differences emerged in the level of attachment reported by women and men owners in the questionnaire. These data support the hypothesis that the behaviour of modern pet owners towards their dogs is an interspecific parental behaviour, and suggest that behaviours evolved to provide care and comfort to human infants have been co-opted for interacting with other social partners. The difference in verbal communication between women and men is in agreement with an evolutionary scenario suggesting a greater pre-disposition in women to use language as a relational tool.