You may already know not to make too huge a deal about leaving your dog home alone, whether for a little while or for much of the day. You want to say good-bye, yes, but turning parting into such sweet sorrow will only give your canine loved one the clearest message that every separation is emotionally painful. A stroke on the side of the muzzle and a chipper “Watch the house while I’m gone” will serve his mood much better in your absence.
But what about the greeting you give your dog when you arrive back home, or perhaps just walk into the room where your dog has been resting? One school of thought, espoused by a popular celebrity dog behaviorist, says that it’s a good idea to ignore your dog for a bit when you return to make sure he understands that you’re the leader of the pack. We disagree with that hard-line approach, and research backs our thinking.
Specifically, investigators have found that the more enthusiastic your voice, especially when combined with touch, the happier your dog will be. Little reunions mean everything to him.
Behaviorists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala proved the point empirically when they conducted a study on a dozen beagles that involved a scripted departure and reunion. An individual known to the dogs left them alone for 25 minutes. Twenty-five minutes may seem like no time at all, but it’s a lot for dogs left in a room by themselves. Thus, it was a useful interval for producing stress and measuring reactions when their human friend returned, not just by observing the dogs’ actions but also by drawing blood and looking at hormone level changes during the experiment.
The scientists instructed the people participating to greet the dogs in one of three ways upon returning to them: talking in a friendly voice while petting them, greeting them but not petting them, or entering the room and simply sitting on a chair. A veterinary student drew blood to measure oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” and cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Oxytocin is produced in greater amounts during times of positive social connections, such as birth, breast feeding, and intimate relations. Cortisol tends to spike in those experiencing anxiety or fear.
The dogs’ excitement at the time of the reunion was obvious in their increased activity levels and tail wagging. The experimenters also found that the dogs’ cortisol levels dropped while their oxytocin levels rose upon the return of their friend. The greatest benefit came from the warmest reunion, when the dogs were provided with verbal and physical affection upon their friends’ reentry.
Not surprisingly, the dogs showed their discomfort with being ignored by attempting to engage their newly returned friend by walking over to him now and then, presumably in a bid for attention.
The effects of the warmest, most enthusiastic greetings were not short lived. Hormonal changes continued to be evidenced in blood samples drawn later, showing that the positive effects remained longest in dogs who had been greeted with verbal and physical affection.
The study is a good reminder of just how much our dogs depend on us, not just for resources like food but also for signs of love and reassurance. Separation is difficult for them; a heartfelt, affectionate reunion means so much to them and is so easy to give.
The researchers’ results are also in no way surprising when you look at evidence across species. In the middle of the last century, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of studies (some of them controversial because they involved rhesus monkeys left isolated for very long periods of time) that showed that touching was an important aspect of creating warm, affectionate bonds. He even was able to show that the depth of love that a child has for his mother is due, at least in part, to the amount of touching that goes on between them.
And the touching can take different forms. It can be on purpose, like with hugging. Or it can occur because of something else going on, like grooming — brushing a loved one’s hair, for instance. It can even be absent-minded, such as when a loved one passes by and a parent reaches out to touch his head or pat him on the shoulder.
In other words, even when you stroke your dog on the back or the face without thinking about it, you are increasing your bond with your pet.