Dogs form an attachment to their owner and as a result can find it stressful to be separated from them. It used to be conventional wisdom that you should ignore your dog before you go out, but a pilot study finds gentle petting of dogs before a short separation makes them more calm than if they were ignored before the separation.
Separation-related issues are a welfare concern for dogs and may affect the human-animal bond (see: well-behaved dogs may have happier owners). But how to help dogs who donât have separation-related issues has received very little attention.
A new study by Dr. Chiara Mariti et al, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, looks at the effects of gentle petting on dogsâ stress response to separation.
As it is a pilot study, there were only 10 dogs (and 7 owners). The study took place at a field which was a neutral location, away from the dogsâ homes where they were used to being left, and the dogs were on leash.
All dogs took part in two conditions. In the gentle petting condition, the owner spent one minute petting the dog before going away and leaving the dog with the experimenter.
In the neutral condition, owners ignored the dog for one minute prior to going away and leaving the dog with the experimenter.
Both absences lasted for 3 minutes, during which the owner went and stood behind a shed where they were not visible to the dog. Although the researchers say there probably was not a scent cone indicating to the dog they were close by, of course this cannot be ruled out.
The experimenter simply stood still and held the leash until it was time to call the owner back.
The scientists looked at dogsâ behavior during the absence, heart rate before and after, and salivary cortisol after the absence.
The dogs were not highly stressed by the separation, as shown by low salivary cortisol levels and by their behaviors.
However, they spent a long time looking for the owner in both conditions (almost half the absence, at 84.5s in the petting condition and 87.5s in the neutral condition).
When dogs were petted before the absence, they spent more time showing calm behaviors during the absence, and their heart rate was lower after the test, compared to when they were ignored before the absence.
The paper concludes:
âThis pilot study suggests that petting a dog before a brief separation from the owner may have a positive effect, making the dog calmer during the separation itself. Further studies are needed to analyze more in depth its effectiveness, especially in dogs affected by separation anxiety.â
In the past, if peopleâs dogs had separation anxiety they were advised to desensitize the dog to signs of imminent departure, such as putting the shoes on. This has not been tested and does not make sense given that predictability is important in helping to reduce stress (Amat et al 2014); there is also the risk of sensitizing the dog to these cues (Overall, 2013).
Although the current study is on dogs without separation-related issues, it suggests another traditional piece of advice about separation anxiety, namely not to pet the dog before departure, may also be wrong. Of course, more research is needed to investigate further.