Pilot data show petting or talking to some dogs can make your absence easier.
Zazie Todd’s recent Psychology Today post, “Should You Pet Your Dog Before an Absence?” nicely summarizes a recently published essay by Chiara Mariti and her colleagues titled “Effects of petting before a brief separation from the owner on dog behavior and physiology: A pilot study,” for which only the abstract is available online for free. Ten dogs were studied and none had separation anxiety issues. The conclusion of this preliminary study in which the dogs’ behavior was observed and cortisol levels and heart rate were measured read, “This 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.” As Todd correctly notes, “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.” Indeed, timeworn advice not to pet dogs before going leaving them is not supported by this new study.
After reading Dr. Todd’s essay and the abstract for the published study, I revisited some data collected by two students (Miranda and Tracey) in my animal behavior class. Their research also was a pilot study and they analyzed different behavior patterns than did Mariti and her colleagues. We decided not to publish the results of this preliminary study, however, their data also support the idea that saying goodbye to many dogs is better than simply getting up and leaving. Here are some of their results that obviously need to be followed up in more detailed and systematic future studies.
Miranda and Tracey studied 20 dogs (10 males and 10 females, all mutts), 7 of whom had various separation anxiety issues (4 females and 3 males), according to their humans. They looked at the effects of petting a dog, sitting quietly before leaving and talking softly to the dog with the humans saying something like, “I’m leaving now but will be back soon” or, “Goodbye, I’ll be back later,” or simply turning around and leaving with no petting or saying goodbye or other utterances. The students then looked at each dog when the dog was unaware of their presence and recorded the duration of pacing, vocalizing (barking, whining, or whimpering), and dogs running to a window ostensibly looking for their human. The study was done at the dog’s home or for 3 dogs at other places where the dog and their human spent a lot of time. In addition to 7 of the dogs having separation issues, Miranda and Tracey also collected some general information about each dog’s personality (from their human or others who knew the dog) and also used information they gathered when getting to know a particular dog and their human.
The results of their study showed there were no gender differences and for the 13 non-separation anxiety dogs, petting and talking softly had the same calming effect (9 dogs) and were better than the dog’s human simply getting up and leaving without doing anything in terms of pacing and vocalizing (4 dogs). There weren’t enough observations of dogs running to a window supposedly looking for their human, but the few data we collected showed a high correlation between pacing and running to the window. However, we weren’t sure what to make of this, other than perhaps during the pacing they caught a glimpse of something or someone outside and went to the window to see what was happening.
For the 7 dogs who had some separation issues, petting was better than soft talking (4 dogs) and both were better than the human simply getting up and leaving without saying goodbye (3 dogs).
Saying goodbye to your dog is a good idea depending on their personality and your relationship with them
We also learned that the data we collected depended on the personality of an individual dog and the relationship they had with their human(s). Dogs who were judged by their humans to be well adjusted to home life and content showed less pacing and vocalizing when their humans left them alone than those who weren’t. Of course, we need more data on how individual differences in personality influence how a dog responds to being left alone, and the bottom line here is that it’s essential to pay attention to each dog and not to clump individuals into general groups. In Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, I stress that there is no being who we can call “the dog,” and that when dogs are studied individual differences need to be considered when looking at all sorts of data stemming from different studies.
Myth-busting the idea that dogs shouldn’t be petted before leaving them alone
Our pilot data agree with those collected by Mariti and her colleagues, namely, that it’s okay to say goodbye to dogs before leaving them and doing so has a calming effect. Of course, it’s essential to look at each dog as the individual who they are, so it’s possible that some dogs might be better off when their human pets them rather than when their human softly says goodbye, and some might be better off when their human simply leaves them without doing or saying anything. Generalizations about what to do when leaving a dog can be very misleading. Along these lines, generalizations also are misleading when considering whether dogs like to be hugged. Indeed, some dogs like to be hugged, whereas others do not, so it’s important to hug them on their terms. Claiming that humans shouldn’t hug dogs simply is a misleading myth. (For more discussion, see “Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care” and “Let’s Give Dogs a Break by Distinguishing Myths From Facts.“) A few of the dogs with whom I shared my home loved to be hugged, so I showered them with hugs before I left them alone. I couldn’t imagine ever ignoring them when I left them at home or not greeting them when I returned home with a big “hello” or “good dog” and a hug.
Some people might say that the data collected by Miranda and Tracey were a good example of “citizen science.” I agree. Citizen science can readily offer important insights into dog behavior. (See “Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research.“) In addition to their research, I’m pleased that other students in my animal behavior class have produced publishable results, and these projects can be very useful for people interested in dog (and other animal) behavior.
Stay tuned for more discussion of various aspects of dog behavior and of dog-human interactions. While we know quite a bit, there still is much to learn.
Some comments I’ve received about this essay:
“Why in the world would anyone not say goodbye to their dog? Do they do the same with humans?”
“I don’t make a big deal when I leave my dog but I always say the same thing when I leave. ‘I’ll be back’ and when I return I say ‘I’m back’.”
“Always has just seemed like the natural thing to do.”
“Well yeah!!!! I have certain things I say to my lab depending upon how long I’ll be out the door. They are smart. They know.”
“I can’t imagine that there are many dogs who would prefer that their owner leave without doing or saying something to them.”
Mariti, C., Carlone, B., Protti, M., Diverio, S., & Gazzano, A. (2018). Effects of petting before a brief separation from the owner on dog behavior and physiology: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 27, 41-46.
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