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Do Humans Serve as a "Safe Haven" for Stressed Dogs?

The simple presence of a dog's owner brings it comfort in times of stress.

Recently one of our young granddaughters was visiting our house when there was an explosion of noise outside of our window. It was the sound of a jackhammer being used by workers as they began to break up the street to lay a new gas line. Our granddaughter was obviously startled and stressed and she moved over to my wife and took her hand and stood very close to her. There is nothing remarkable about this behavior, and psychologists refer to it as the "Safe Haven Effect." It occurs when children seek out the company and even physical contact from adult caretakers when something frightening or tension inducing occurs. Behavioral data and physiological measures both show that in the presence of familiar and friendly adults the child's stress is greatly reduced.

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As it happens it was the next day when I was sitting in my living room and again there was a startling loud noise, this time caused by the same workmen dumping a load of metal piping on the street. My young Cavalier King Charles Spaniel had been resting just out of sight of me, and he was clearly startled and stressed by the unexpected sound. Instead of rushing to the window to see what was going on, as he would normally do for the sound of a dog barking or people speaking while walking by on the sidewalk, he immediately rushed to my side and leaned against me. His shallow panting indicated his stress level, and when I gently patted him, he calmed down. When I considered what had just happened it seemed incredibly similar to the safe haven response of my granddaughter the day before. I therefore decided to see if there was any research supporting that effect in dogs.

As luck would have it, I found a recently published report of a study by a research team headed by Márta Gásci. It was conducted under the auspices of the laboratory of Adám Milósi at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest Hungary and published in the journal PLOS One. They used a variation of what is commonly called the "Strange Situation Test" that is used to test the emotional responses and attachment of human children to parents and other adults. The particularly neat thing about this new study with dogs is that it used physiological measures as well as simple behavioral observation.

There are two indicators of stress that can be picked up by changes in heart response. The first is the heart rate itself, which increases when individuals are stressed. The second is heart rate variability, which really looks it how variable the times are between one heartbeat and the next. Heart rate variability actually reduces when the sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for our responses to stress) increases its activity. These measures can be taken on dogs via radio transmission from sensors attached to the dog's body, thus allowing the dog to move around the room freely.

The general setup of the experiment is quite simple. The dog is brought to a small unfamiliar room which has a chair where the owner can sit. Now a stranger enters the room moving in a threatening manner and staring menacingly at the dog. Simple observation of the fact that many dogs whine and whimper and others bark in response to the appearance of the stranger shows that the dogs are worried by his appearance. But now let us look at the physiological measures.

If the stranger enters the room and the dog's owner is not present there is a large increase in heart rate and a large change in heart rate variability showing that the dog is very stressed indeed. However if the owner of the dog is present, even though he or she makes no response but just simply sits quietly, the stress responses measured by heart rate and heart rate variability are considerably less. It is as though the dog is drawing security and safety feelings from the very presence of a familiar and friendly human, and using that person as a safe haven the way that a human child would.

Now here is one of the more interesting additional findings from this study. Each dog was tested twice, once with their owner present and once with their owner not in the room. The order of this testing was balanced so that some dogs were in the room alone first, while others were in the room with their owner first. The significant finding comes from the dogs who had experienced a threatening stranger on the first trial while their owner was there to serve as a safe haven. Now when these dogs are tested again, this time without their familiar human present, they actually show less of a stress response than the dogs who met the stranger for the first time without their owner present. In other words, after experiencing the stressful situation with their owner serving as a kind of security blanket, the dogs seem to be somewhat inoculated against future stressful responses in similar circumstances.

The conclusion is quite interesting and somewhat comforting to dog owners. Not only do our dogs find safety and comfort simply from our presence, but if they meet potentially stressful situations when we are with them to provide support, then it appears that they are also somewhat protected from stress in the future. This seems to scientifically confirm the recommended practices for socializing dogs, which involves the dog meeting new people, engaging in new activities, and experiencing happenings in the environment in the presence of their owner, who is simply there to show that there is nothing to fear. Enough of these experiences produces a fully socialized and "bombproof" dog who is comfortable with all kinds of people and all aspects of the human environment.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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