Scientific studies reveal how our dogs feel about the way we are greeting them.
Sooner or later, it seems science gets around to answering those basic questions that interest so many of us. At the same time, we may not realize how important some of those questions really are. For example, have you ever asked yourself if there’s an ideal way for greeting your dog after you’ve been away from him for awhile?
Whenever I return home, or come downstairs in the morning, I go through a bit of a greeting ritual with my dogs. This involves talking to them in a happy voice while using their names. At the same time, I am touching and patting them on their heads and flanks. I developed this habit partly because it makes me feel good, and the dogs seem to respond positively.
I am also trying to incorporate a bit of science. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the psychologist Harry Harlow did an extensive series of studies that showed touching was an important part of establishing warm and affectionate bonds between individuals. He showed that the depth of love a child has for its mother is partly due to the amount and quality of touching the child and mother engage in. As a practical extension of his findings, clinical psychologists who work with married couples or families are trained to observe whether or not the individuals casually touch each other during therapy sessions, since this is a positive sign that indicates there is still a measure of affection and emotional bonding in the relationship.
More recent research published in the journal Physiology and Behavior confirms the importance of touching. This time, the study looked at the emotional response of dogs when a familiar person greeted them after a period of separation. A team of researchers headed by Therese Rehn from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences conducted the study using 12 Beagles as test subjects.
The general setup involved a fixed sequence of actions. A study dog was taken into the testing room by a person he was very familiar with. The person then exited, leaving the dog behind for 25 minutes before returning. While in the room, each dog was accompanied only by an unfamiliar veterinary student who sat quietly and did not interact with him (except when called upon to draw blood samples). Even though the dogs were familiar with the test area in which they were left, this was potentially a stressful period of separation. Other research has shown that when dogs are under stress, they (like young human children left in similar situations) are usually comforted by, and often seek the presence of, a familiar friendly person.
In the Swedish study, when the familiar person returned after the separation, the manner in which she greeted the dog was scripted. In one condition, the person greeted the dog by talking to her in a friendly tone of voice and petting her. In another condition, the same verbal greeting was given but the dog was not touched. Finally, in a control condition, the individual did not greet the dog in any way, but simply entered the room, sat down on a chair, and began to read a magazine.
The experimenters measured the emotional response of the dogs using a technique that is becoming more common among behavioral researchers. It involves determining the concentration of oxytocin in an individual’s blood stream. Oxytocin is produced in our bodies in various social situations. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”, since our bodies release it in high concentrations during positive social interactions, such as falling in love, experiencing an orgasm, or breastfeeding. Changes in the amount of oxytocin are believed to be an indication of the positive affectionate feelings an individual is experiencing at the moment.
The researchers also looked for another hormone that reflects the flip side of the coin – namely, the amount of stress the dogs were feeling. This involves measuring the concentration of cortisol in the blood. Cortisol is often referred to as a “stress hormone” since it appears in times of unease, fear, tension or anxiety.
The results of the study were rather straightforward. At the sight of the familiar person returning to the room, the dogs became more active, with tails wagging. The sight of that familiar person was obviously a positive event, since the concentration of oxytocin in the dogs’ blood increased and the concentration of cortisol decreased. Remember, the aim of this study was to see if the way the familiar person greeted the dog made any difference. It did. When an individual greeted a dog using both voice and touch, oxytocin rose to much higher levels than when the greeting involved voice alone. The mirror image occurred for cortisol levels; the decrease in concentration of this stress-related chemical in the blood was sharpest when the person used physical touching as well as voice when greeting the dog.
An interesting finding was that positive emotional effects persisted for a long time after the actual greeting, when both voice and touch were used. Positive changes and emotions dissipated much more quickly when the dog was greeted only by voice, and most quickly when the familiar person returned but did not interact with the dog. In this last condition, where there was no social interaction, the dogs actually seemed bothered, and would often wander over to the unfamiliar person in the room to try and make physical contact with them.
This study indicates that the sight of a familiar person is a positive event for a dog, and the sound of that person’s voice is even better. But it’s the sensation of actually being touched that helps boost the levels of good feeling in a dog, and allows that warm glow to continue beyond those few brief moments when the dog and her loved one reunite.
For this reason, I will continue to greet my dogs by bending down to touch them, even though it’s a bit painful for me given my arthritis, combined with the fact that my dogs are small. The positive emotional effect it has on my dogs is more important to me than the momentary ache I get from my old bones!
Stanley Coren is professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is also an award winning behavioural researcher, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was named as one of the 2,000 outstanding scientists of the 20th century. His many books on dog behaviour and human-canine interactions have been international bestsellers. His awards include the prestigious Maxwell Medal of Excellence from The Dog Writers Association of America for his book Born to Bark. Coren has been featured on Oprah, Larry King, and can be heard broadcasting a radio column on CBC. His newest book is Do Dogs Dream.