Do Dogs Find Their Owners Presence Supportive When a Threatening Stranger Comes Near?

When dogs are tested in a slightly stressful situation, it turns out their owner's presence is helpful.
By Zazie Todd, PhD

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How does your dog compare to a toddler? Recent animal research is comparing the abilities of dogs with young humans. A brand new study by Márta Gácsi et al in Hungary investigates whether dogs have the same response as infants to a test called the Strange Situation.

Dogs find their owner's presence supportive when a threatening stranger comes near, according to this study on the importance of owners to their dogs.  Photo shows Asian girl with a Poodle in her armsIn humans, attachment theory explains how children need to develop a strong attachment to at least one caregiver. If they don’t, their social and emotional development will be disrupted. As infants begin to crawl, the caregiver is a ‘secure base’ from which to explore. 

Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation as a way of investigating attachment. This is a standardized procedure in which the infant is in a room with their caregiver when a stranger comes in. Following a strict protocol, the baby is left alone with the stranger, then comforted by the caregiver, left all alone, then joined by the stranger again. An infant that is securely attached will be upset when the caregiver leaves the room, but is happy to see them return and easily soothed. 

Attempts to replicate the Strange Situation with dogs have led to mixed results, probably because a well-socialized dog is happy to see a friendly stranger. So Gácsi et al designed this study to include a threatening approach from a stranger, to make it more difficult for the dog. 

They measured the dog’s physiological response in terms of heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV), as HRV can be an indicator of stress even when HR is unchanged. To do this, they had to shave three small patches of the dog’s fur and attach electrodes.

Thirty-two medium or large pet dogs took part in the experiment at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. After the heart rate monitor was fitted in a waiting room, the dog and their owner were left alone in the experimental room for ten minutes. This gave the dog time to explore and get used to the surroundings. The room was fitted with video cameras so that the dog’s behaviour could be recorded.

The experiment itself had two conditions that were counter-balanced. In other words, half the dogs first experienced the threatening approach from the stranger when they were with their owners, and later experienced it without their owners. The other half of the dogs first experienced the threatening approach without their owners, and the second time they had their owner present. 

The stranger was a female experimenter who approached slowly, staring at the dog, as this is something dogs find threatening. However, because movement can affect HR, if the dog moved around or barked she stopped and waited until the dog settled down again. The data from the time when the dog was moving was discarded. At the very end, the stranger had a friendly interaction with the dog, so as to finish on a positive note.

The dogs’ heart rate increased during the threatening approach, and it increased most when the owner was absent. Heart rate variability, also a sign of stress, increased most when the owner was absent and the stranger was not approaching.

People are a 'secure base' for their dogs, according to this study of the importance of owners to their dogs. Photo shows a man, his grand-daughter, a dog and cat outside.
Of course, some dogs react more strongly to separation from their owner or to the sight of strangers. So Gácsi also did an analysis comparing reactive to non-reactive dogs. Dogs were defined as reactive to separation if they whined or barked while the owner was gone. For these dogs, HRV increased during separation, but less so when the stranger approached. 

Dogs were defined as reactive to the threatening approach if they growled or barked at the stranger. For these dogs, HR increased significantly when they saw the stranger, but less so if their owner was present, or if they had previously seen the stranger when the owner was present. Interestingly, the non-reactive dogs actually had no overall HR increase during the threatening approach. It turns out that some of these dogs had a slight increase (stress) and some had a slight decrease in HR (because they were interested in the stranger), and these balanced each other out.

These results show some similarity to the behaviour of infants during the Strange Situation. During the threatening approach, the increase in dogs’ heart rate was not as great if the owner was with them. In the reactive dogs, there was a protective effect if they first met the stranger when the owner was present; this made them less stressed when subsequently meeting the stranger without the owner present (though still not at baseline).

The presence of the owner had a ‘secure base’ effect, similar to that of a caregiver with an infant. The authors say “our results contribute to earlier findings that dogs and humans provide social support for each other in stressful situations.”

This relates to studies of social referencing. Infants look to their caregiver for information about a new object, and alter their behaviour accordingly (i.e. approach or avoid). Studies of dogs with a strange object have found similar results

One drawback to the current study is that, because the measurements were affected by movement, if the dog moved the stranger had to pause her approach and the data during that time could not be used. So it was not a natural approach, and the total time the dog was in the presence of the stranger varied depending on the dog’s response. Nonetheless, it shows that the presence of the owner provides some security for the dog if they are threatened by an approaching stranger.

The study also shows there are individual differences in how dogs respond to separation from their owner and to a threatening stranger. Some of the dogs were interested in the stranger despite her threatening manner of approach, whereas others reacted by growling and barking. 

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

How does your dog respond to strangers?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Gácsi, M., Maros, K., Sernkvist, S., Faragó, T., & Miklósi, Á. (2013). Human analogue safe haven effect of the owner: behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs. PLoS One, 8(3), e58475.

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