- Harsh early life experiences have residual effects on the emotions and behaviors of dogs.
- Dogs who had a harsh early life are more fearful of strangers and of non-social events, such as loud noises.
- Early life hardship makes adult dogs more clingy and dependent upon their owner for emotional support.
A substantial body of scientific data has established that interacting with a dog can have the therapeutic effect of relieving human stress and anxiety. For example, students facing pre-examination stress can get more than 10 hours of stress reduction from a few minutes of comfort by a therapy dog.
What is less well known is that dogs, faced with stressful conditions, also seem to draw comfort from having human contact. However, a recent study suggests that dogs who have suffered from early life adversities may handle stress differently and have a different relationship to their owners than dogs that have been reared under less harsh conditions.
This newest study comes from the department of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It is part of a series of studies that has been going on for nearly a decade, mostly involving Alicia Buttner and Rosemary Strasser along with other colleagues. These investigations have been exploring how stressors, including those in the early life histories of dogs, can affect dogs' physiological and behavioral responses throughout their lives. The poetic expression of this hypothesis is "The child is father to the man" which was coined by William Wordsworth in his 1802 poem "My Heart Leaps Up". It suggests that early childhood events shape later personality and behavior. It is a foundational concept in the psychodynamic theories of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erickson and Carl Jung. This series of studies demonstrates that the theory also holds for canine behavior.
Finding Comfort in Times of Stress
The current investigation uses a variation of the "Strange Situation" procedure which was developed to study attachment or bonding behavior in human children. Basically the child is brought into an unfamiliar place, confronted with unfamiliar people, either when alone or in the presence of their parent or caregiver. The child's reactions in this new environment and the presence of strangers are covertly recorded. In general it is observed that in such potentially anxiety producing situations a normal emotionally well-attached child will treat their caregiver as a "safe haven". They seem to gain confidence and security by having their caregiver close by and are much more willing to explore the room and interact with toys scattered around the floor despite the presence of a stranger in the room. Similar kinds of responses have been observed in well-bonded dogs using a variation of this test, suggesting that dogs find safety and comfort simply from the presence of their familiar human.
The Effects of Early Adversity
The idea behind this most recent study was to assess the effects of early hardships on a dog's later responses to stress and to see if it affected a dog's ability to draw comfort from its owner. A group of 23 dogs was classified as having adverse early life histories (such as those who needed to be rescued from poorly maintained puppy mills). The comparison sample of 22 normally raised dogs had no history of neglect. They mostly came from conscientious breeders operating out of their homes or farms.
In general, the dogs with the more difficult early life histories showed higher average cortisol levels (a hormone associated with increased stress) than the dogs reared in a more supportive environment. The researchers suggest that this might indicate a persistent residual effect of the adversity which those dogs suffered when they were young.
General Behavioral Observations
The most important measures that were taken included the owner's assessment of their dog's behavior and direct experimental observations of the dog's behavior in a mild stress test.
Basic behavior tendencies were determined by having the owner fill out the Canine Behavioral Assessment Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This instrument has been widely used, especially to measure behavioral tendencies including fearfulness and aggression in dogs.
The data showed that the dogs that had adverse early life histories were more fearful towards strangers in general, and also were more fearful in non-social situations (such as when there were loud noises in the environment). These dogs with early harsh rearing were also more clingy, with higher levels of attention seeking and more separation related anxiety. As an interesting aside, the early stressed dogs also showed lower levels of trainability.
Direct Observation of Dogs Faced With a Potential Stressor
The stress test was in a room with a blanket laid on the floor and a low stool in the middle for the dog's human partner to sit on during testing. A camera recorded the dog's and human's behaviors. The dog could either be accompanied by its owner, or by a researcher. The individual sat with the dog and held its leash to restrict it from moving too widely around the room. During the stress test the person accompanying the dog refrained from touching or speaking to it.
The stress imposed upon the dogs was the arrival of a "threatening stranger". This was a fairly mild stressor (since university research ethics boards make sure that nothing really unkind happens to an animal during a behavioral experiment). The threatening stranger was a female researcher, who entered through the back of the room and scuffed her foot on the floor to get the dog's attention. She then looked directly into the dog's eyes (which is a hostile nonverbal signal among dogs) and slowly walked toward the dog with her hands behind her back and a slightly bent upper body. The approach lasted approximately 30 seconds, but was terminated early if the dogs showed signs of reactivity, fear, or aggression (such as cowering, barking, or growling).
Scoring of the videos showed that the dogs with adverse early histories mostly responded fearfully, regardless of whether their owners were present or not. In comparison, the normally reared dogs apparently did not view the "threatening stranger" as all that threatening, and many exhibited friendly responses to the new arrival.
The dogs with difficult early life histories displayed several behaviors which indicated that they felt the need to use their owner as a safe haven during testing. Important clues were that they engaged in higher levels of physical contact, licking, touching or leaning against their owner. They also engaged in more gaze alternation, where they looked at the possibly threatening stranger and then looked at their owner's face and eyes as if to gather information as to whether their owner interpreted her arrival as a danger. The investigators interpret these behaviors as meaning that the approaching person was making the dogs uneasy and felt that the dog required the kind of emotional support which could come from the attention of their owner.
Normally reared dogs also drew some support and stress reduction in their owner's presence. This showed up in a number of ways including the fact that they explored more freely when their owner was in the room.
The Child is Father to the Man
The investigators conclude that their results suggest that adverse rearing conditions early in life have a lasting effect on dogs. As adults these dogs are generally more fearful and stressed. They also seem to need, and to benefit from, the presence of their caretaker to a greater degree than more favorably reared dogs, when they are confronted with a potentially threatening situation.
So perhaps we can now modify Wordsworth's nearly classic expression to read, "The puppy is the father to the dog", at least emotionally and behaviorally.
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Buttner, A. P., Awalt, S. L., & Strasser, R. (2023). Early life adversity in dogs produces altered physiological and behavioral responses during a social stress-buffering paradigm. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1002/jeab.856
Buttner, A. P., & Strasser, R. (2022). Extreme life histories are associated with altered social behavior and cortisol levels in shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 256, Article 105693. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2022.105693
Buttner, A. P., Thompson, B., Strasser, R., & Santo, J. (2015). Evidence for a synchronization of hormonal states between humans and dogs during competition. Physiology & Behavior, 147, 54–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.04.010
Coren, S. (2013, 20 March). Do Humans Serve As a "Safe Haven" for Stressed Dogs? Psychology Today, Canine Corner, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201303/do-humans-serve-safe-haven-stressed-dogs
Coren, S. (2018, 20 March). Petting Away Pre-Exam Stress: Therapy Dogs on Campus. Psychology Today, Canine Corner. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201803/petting-away-pre-exam-stress-therapy-dogs-campus