There’s no place like home

5 July 2013 by Malcolm Campbell, posted in Biology

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." from the motion picture The Wizard of Oz (1939), screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf.

There’s nothing like the reassurance of home. We recognise this from our infancy, and it is reinforced right through adulthood. Home is the place we return to after a day of school; the place where we return after a day of work.

Even our games emphasise the importance of home.

One of the most common of all children’s games, “Hide and Seek”, has a home base. Whoever reaches home first is “safe”.

That iconic American game, baseball, highlights the crucial nature of home perhaps more than any other sport. Home plate is where all point scoring begins and ends. A player who reaches home plate in advance of the ball is “safe” and scores a run. The best you can do in terms of point scoring involves hitting a home run. In essence, the baseball team that is able to get most of its players home wins the game. Ultimately, the round trip from home is how baseball is won or lost.

Like baseball, our initial explorations of the world begin and end at a home base. Unlike baseball, our round trips from home base are ever-widening, irregular circuits, enabling us to examine every nook and cranny of our environment. We use home as a jumping off point, from which to explore the world. Importantly, it is also the place where we return in times of uncertainty or challenge. It is our safe haven.

Crucially, our notion of home base is flexible. Rather than ascribing home to a simple physical location, we are able to form attachments to people who can themselves function as our home base, our safe haven. As infants, this is generally our primary care-giver, such as a parent, but it can extend to individuals or groups with whom we have formed strong attachments.

As children, we make use of our human home bases – like mobile harbours – from which we venture out to investigate new surroundings or circumstances. They are also the safe harbours to which we return for comfort, support and reinforcement when we feel unsure, challenged, or threatened by what we have found. Over time, we are able to broaden our exploration, and decrease the frequency of return to our human home base. Eventually, we are able to form new attachments, new home bases, that allow us to probe even further into our world. Alternatively, we may use different mechanisms to obtain the support of our home bases. Rather than “checking in” physically, we do so via another communication mechanism. Nowadays, the means by which one can “check in” at home are varied and immediate – telephone, texting, email, video link are all used.

At some point in our lives, we transition from being entirely dependent on others as home bases, to functioning as home bases ourselves. We can create our own safe havens, ones to which we can return for comfort. We can also serve in this capacity for others.

In fact, so good are we at serving as home bases for others, that at least one other species can use us a secure home base from which to expand their experience of the world.  It will probably come as no surprise that this other species is none other than the domestic dog.

Recent research conducted by Lisa Horn and colleagues at the University of Vienna has beautifully illustrated the role that humans can play in assisting dogs in their interactions with the environment. This research has its roots in theory postulated over 50 years ago by the eminent psychologist John Bowlby, which focused on the attachment between infants and primary caregivers. Bowlby identified four key components of that attachment, one of which was the ability of the infant to use the caregiver as a “secure base” from which to explore the environment free from anxiety. In the late 1960s, Mary Ainsworth developed a test to explore this aspect of Bowlby’s attachment theory. Known as “The Strange Situation Test”, it involves observing the interactions between a child and a stranger in the presence and absence of the person who functions as a secure base. The Strange Situation Test showed that children interacted with strangers to a much greater extent when their primary caregiver was present. This provided strong support for the notion of a secure base, as predicted by attachment theory.

Over the past decade, the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test has been applied to dogs with their human caregivers. The test revealed that dogs were much more likely to interact with a stranger if their caregiver was present at the same time. This provided evidence that dogs use human caregivers as a secure base, in a manner analogous to human children with their primary caregivers.

Horn and colleagues extended the examination of dogs’ use of humans as a secure base by providing dogs with a task to complete, either in the presence or absence of their caregiver. The task in question was relatively simple, merely finding and manipulating a toy that released a food reward. Aside from the simple presence or absence of a dog’s caregiver, Horn and colleagues introduced two interesting variables into the experiment. One variable was the extent of encouragement provided by the dog’s caregiver. In some instances the caregiver was silent, in the other, highly encouraging. The other variable was the presence of a stranger, the experimenter, in the room.

In keeping with attachment theory, the dogs were most likely to engage with the task when their caregiver was in the room with them. Surprisingly, the extent of encouragement offered by the caregiver made no difference in the dogs’ engagement with the task. Interestingly, dogs were more likely to spend more time engaged in the task when the experimenter was in the room with them without their caregiver, than if they were left alone. While the time spent engaged in the task was not as long as with the caregiver, there was still a boost in engagement provided by the presence of a different human in the room. It is as though the dogs were able to use these humans as a weak substitute for a secure base.

Clearly, one of the products of our 15000 year history together is that dogs are able to use humans as a home base from which to explore their world. Anyone who has dogs as companions sees this on a daily basis. Many dogs will explore novel spaces, and will generally periodically  “check in” with their human companion before striking out again to discover new places and things. It is easy to imagine this trait being selected during the process of dog domestication. Dogs that used humans as a secure base, that “checked in” with their human companions, that, according to attachment theory, had the greatest attachment to their humans, would be those favoured for provision of resources, from food to protection to mates.

That dogs use humans as a secure base has had great advantages for humans. Their ramblings, coupled with “check ins” provide us with a means by which to expand our perception of our local environment. As they are bestowed with a set of senses that complement our own, providing us with greater insights into our surroundings – identifying predators and prey that are obscured from our sight, hearing or sense of smell. They can go places where we cannot, and can frequently get there faster. Dogs have the capacity to function as extensions of ourselves, to extend our reach into our environments, like living, breathing satellites.

As if inspired by the relationship with our canine companions, our approach to the exploration of space similarly relies on a form of attachment theory.  While they are far from biological beings, the remarkable craft we have launched into space have striking behavioural similarities to infants and dogs alike. Consider, for example, the Voyager probes.

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have been engaged in a stunning exploration of our Solar System. With ever widening spheres of exploration, they have provided an extraordinary picture of our planetary neighbourhood. Currently, Voyager 1 has travelled further than any other man-made object. It speeds towards the very edge of our solar system toward interstellar space at over 17km per second.  Voyager 1 is now almost 125 astronomical units away (1.865×1010 km), where each astronomical unit is the equivalent to the average distance between the Sun and the Earth. It is almost impossible to fathom.

Despite it’s distance from Earth, Voyager continues to use earth as a secure base – checking in with home, and receiving reassurance as it proceeds on its mission. Travelling on radiowaves, at bit rates that are orders of magnitude lower than most mobile phone networks, it takes roughly 17 hours for messages to be transmitted one way between Voyager 1 and Earth – a long distance call if ever there was one. Voyager 1 reports back the new and novel aspects of space it explores. While it has not yet exited the heliosphere, the sphere of influence of our Sun, it has entered a region of space within our solar system that has surprising features and has never been observed before.

Like a big, faithful dog, Voyager 1 is sniffing out new regions of space. And like a big, faithful dog, Voyager 1 is checking in, sharing a perspective gleaned using a set of sensors that are well beyond human sensory capability. Our attachment with Voyager 1 is extending our reach and understanding of the universe in which we reside. And it is showing us that there is truly no place like home.


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Horn L, Huber L, Range F (2013) The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task. PLoS ONE 8: e65296

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Images: All photographs by Malcolm M. Campbell.


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