A new study casts doubt on a mainstay of teaching dogs to stay home alone. Here’s what it found.
Everyone’s heard the advice: ignore your dog when leaving the house and returning. The claim is that long goodbyes and excited reunions might cause separation anxiety, but if you don’t make a fuss, the dog will learn that your comings and goings are no big deal.
Personally, I don’t ignore the dog; I ignore this advice. I’ve always given my dogs a treat when I leave the house, and it seems to make them happy to see me go. In fact, they’re so happy that it’s almost insulting. But that’s better than them being upset about it, so I am willing to endure this minor blow to my self-esteem.
A new study suggests that in fact ignoring the dog is probably not the ideal way to say goodbye.
Petting Has Positive Results
In the experiment, each owner brought their dog into a field at a training center and left him with a stranger for three minutes. Each dog was tested twice: one time the owner ignored the dog before leaving, another time, the owner petted the dog for one minute before leaving. The dogs were not extremely distressed by the separation, as shown by measurements of cortisol (a hormone used to test for stress) and behavior, but they spent a lot of the time looking where the owner had gone, so they did seem to be actively waiting for their owner’s return.
The results showed that petting had a positive effect: When the dogs had been petted, they showed more calm behaviors during the separation and their heart rate was lower afterward, compared to when they had been ignored.
This is only a small pilot study, but it’s interesting because it suggests that conventional wisdom has it exactly backward. It turns out that this is less surprising than it might be, because there’s actually no research supporting it.
“So many owners have heard the old advice to ignore your dog when you leave and when you come home, but there’s really not any evidence for it,” says Zazie Todd, PhD, author of the website Companion Animal Psychology and the Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures.
Despite how often it’s repeated, Todd says I’m not the only one who disregards this advice.
“I think it’s counterintuitive to what people want to do, especially when they come home and a happy, wiggly dog is waiting for them–it feels wrong,” she says. And they don’t ignore dogs when they leave any more than they’d go out without saying goodbye to a spouse or child: “We think of dogs like family members, so it’s just a bit weird to do that.”
Many Farewell Rituals
When Todd wrote a blog post about this study, she got a lot of comments from people describing their routines for saying goodbye to their dogs–and like me with my “goodbye cookie,” not a single one said they ignored them. “I think it’s really common that people have these rituals,” she says. “They have a routine, so the dog knows you’re going to go out but you’re going to come back as well.”
It’s important to note that the dogs in this study did not have separation anxiety–treating a dog with separation anxiety takes quite a bit more effort than a minute of petting. But there’s also no research behind the claim that how you take leave of your dog will cause separation anxiety. So if ignoring him doesn’t feel right, don’t worry about it, says Todd. “It seems that it’s perfectly okay to pet your dog before you go out if that’s what you want to do.”
If you suspect your dog might suffer from separation anxiety, talk to your veterinarian.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.