Every pet owner knows all too well what it’s like to see sad little puppy dog eyes staring up at them as they’re about to leave for the day. “But moooom, can’t we cuddle for just five more minutes?” they seem to beg. And as much as we’d love to do just that, we have to hope our head scratches are enough to tide them over until we get home.
According to new research, giving our pups a little loving before we head out the door actually does help keep them calm while we’re away. Per a study published in the September-October 2018 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, gently petting a dog before leaving home has a positive effect on the animal’s stress response.
In the pilot study, researchers divided the dogs into two categories. In the gentle petting group, owners stroked their dogs for a minute before going away and leaving the pet with the experimenter, while owners in the neutral condition ignored their dog for a minute before exiting. The owners were gone for a total of three minutes in both conditions (they went to stand behind a shed so their dogs couldn’t see them).
The researchers monitored the dogs’ behaviors while the owners were gone, measured the dogs’ heart rates before and after the separation, and noted the animals’ salivary cortisol after their owners left (excess drooling can be a sign of stress). The experimenters noticed that though none of the dogs were highly stressed, the animals from both groups spent almost half the time looking for their missing owners.
However, the key difference between the groups was that dogs who were pet before their owners left exhibited more calm behaviors when their owners were missing and had a lower heart rate after the reunion compared to dogs in the neutral condition. The researchers conclude that this topic needs further study, though they write that the findings suggest “that petting a dog before a brief separation from the owner may have a positive effect, making the dog calmer during the separation itself.”
In other words, keep calm and carry on (with the head rubs)!