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The Presence of a Dog Makes People and Places Seem Safer

Even in unsafe urban locations, a person with a dog seems less of a threat.

Key points

  • In modern cities there are many locales and settings which provoke feelings of threat, especially in women.
  • Encountering an unknown individual with a small or medium-sized dog is apt to increase feelings of safety in such settings.
  • If the unknown person in the unsafe locale is a male, the increase in feelings of safety is greater if the dog is small.
Ed Yourdon/Flickr
Source: Ed Yourdon/Flickr

With the media full of crime statistics, modern cities often feel dangerous and menacing. People living in certain urban areas (especially young women) often find themselves cautiously assessing their safety level as they scan their environment for potential threats. Imagine, for example, that you are in a dimly lit enclosed parking lot and an unknown man is walking toward you. How likely is it that you might feel at least a momentary jitter and a tinge of fear or suspicion? Now reimagine the scene: Same dim parking lot, same man, except now he has a small fluffy Pomeranian dog on a leash walking beside him. Do you feel the same level of threat? If you answered "Not so much," you are confirming the results of a recent study by a group of investigators headed by Rafael Delgado-Rodríguez from the Department of Psychology at the University of Jaén in Spain.

Safe vs. Unsafe Situations

This group of investigators wanted to examine whether the presence of a dog made any difference in our feelings of safety in typical city environments. In order to do this, they first needed to create a set of stimulus pictures from metropolitan locales which varied in terms of their threat level. For this reason, they ran a preliminary experiment with 82 female college students in order to find typical urban settings which evoked positive and negative emotional responses.

Horror and mystery movies have always taken advantage of the fact that light levels affect our moods. That is why segments of a cinema that are supposed to create feelings of threat or peril are filmed as night scenes or in darkened rooms. We feel safer in bright light and more ill at ease when it is dark. Therefore, it is not surprising that the urban scenes rated as safe were usually photos taken during the day or with high light levels. Scenes rated as threatening were usually shot after dark or in low-light conditions.

The results also showed that, compared with safe spaces, more threatening environments have more places where a menacing troublemaker might conceal themselves and fewer avenues of escape if an individual is confronted by a threat. As one example, safe parking lots were open air, with high visibility from other buildings or shopping malls nearby, while threatening parking lots consisted of enclosed areas with dim artificial lighting levels and pillars that someone could hide behind. The researchers took photos of streets, suburbs, squares, parking lots, and parks and created sets pictures that were reliably rated as being threatening or safe.

Adding Dogs and People to the Scene

Next, these locales were photographed again but now with either a male or a female actor in the environment. The man or woman could either appear alone or with a medium or small-sized dog. An attempt was made to keep the situation as generic as possible so the faces of the human actors were pixelated so that their expressions or appearance would not affect later judgments. Also, the small and medium-sized dogs were not selected from popular or easily recognizable breeds. This means that the final set of photos presented the previously rated urban spaces with a commonplace female or male alone or with an ordinary-looking dog. (There were no other individuals in the pictures.)

These new photos served as the stimuli for the main experiment which involved 296 female undergraduates. Women were chosen as participants in this study because females report more intense feelings of threat and fearfulness for their safety in many urban environments.

For each of the pictures, the women were asked to evaluate their emotional response to the scene, including the level of threat or safety that each photo evoked in them.

Does a Dog Make a Difference?

As is typical in such studies, a large number of statistical analyses were conducted looking at the various dimensions and combinations of emotional responses to the scenes contrasting the person alone or to the person with a dog; however, the main outcome of this investigation is quite easily described.

In general, the young female participants in this study rated the scenarios containing people accompanied by medium or small-sized dogs more positively than when the person was shown alone. Specifically, when a dog was present, the participants felt better emotionally about the situation, more in control, calmer, and, most importantly, safer and less at risk. The positive effect of the presence of the dog was actually greater in the more intimidating locations.

The beneficial effects of the dog being present were found whether the human in the photo was male or female. As might be expected, males were viewed as more threatening overall, especially in negative, unsafe settings. Thus it is interesting to note that the increase in safety feelings conveyed by having a dog in attendance were somewhat stronger when the scene involved a male actor with a dog as compared to those containing a female actor with a dog.

Does the Size of the Dog Matter?

The size of a dog also makes a difference. The data showed that a man was considered to be less of a threat when accompanied by a medium-sized dog compared with being alone; however seeing that same man with a still smaller dog produced an even more positive emotional response and much reduced feelings of menace. This explains why, in the opening of film True Lies, where an attempt is being made to make Arnold Schwarzenegger's character appear to be a bit of a nonthreatening milquetoast, the director has him walking a tiny Chihuahua dog. Apparently even a large man doesn't seem like very much of a threat when accompanied by such a small dog.

Please note that all of the dogs used in this study were either small or medium-sized. It seemed obvious to the investigators that a man approaching down a darkened street with a 120-pound (58 kg) Rottweiler by his side was not apt to increase anybody's feeling of safety.

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Rafael Delgado-Rodríguez, Raquel Carriquí Madroñal, Cecilia Vázquez Villalba, Rafael Martos-Montes, David Ordoñez-Pérez (2022). The role of dogs in modulating human affective reactivity and sense of safety in emotional urban public spaces. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, vol. 55-56, 12-22,