The Question: Are dogs less stressed when their owners are present during routine veterinary examinations or do they fare better when examined in the owners’ absence?
I have written about this issue before (see “Be There“). The study reviewed in that piece reported that having a dog’s owner speak softly to and pet their dog during a veterinary examination resulted in reduced signs of stress in the dog (I know; this should not be a surprise). The conclusions were that dogs may naturally look to their owners for comfort and security in times of anxiety or fear. Other studies have corroborated this theory, including one that reported that dogs performed best at cognitive tasks and were less anxious when the owner was close at hand. Those researchers concluded that a dog’s owner, similar to the parent of a young child, acts as the dog’s secure base and helps to increase a dog’s level of confidence in novel situations (see “Hey, Teacher, Leave those Dogs Alone!”).
One limitation of the 2017 veterinary clinic study was that, while the researchers examined differences in stress response when dogs were comforted by their owner versus when the owner sat several feet away, they did not include a condition in which dogs were separated from their owners and examined in another room.
Last month, a paper that did include this condition was published by researchers at the University of Guelph’s Veterinary College (1).
NOTE This study was conducted and submitted for publication prior to January, 2020 (pre-pandemic). It is duly noted that many veterinary clinics are currently not allowing owners to accompany their pets into clinics for health and safety reasons. Please note that the results of this study assume a return to normal veterinary practice protocols in the future.
The Study: A group of 32 client-owned, healthy, adult dogs were recruited. Dogs were randomly assigned to one of two groups; owner-present or owner-absent. A standardized wellness examination was provided to all dogs that included a physical examination and measurement of body temperature, respiration rate and heart rate. In the owner-present group, the owners sat in a chair next to the dog (who was on a mat on the floor) throughout the examination. They were instructed to behave as they normally would during a veterinary appointment with their dog and were allowed to pet and talk to their dog during the examination. In the owner-absent group, owners brought their dog into the examination room, signed some forms and then left the room. Examinations were videotaped and subsequently scored for behavioral signs of stress or fear (lowered body posture, shaking, lip licking, avoidance, vocalizing, yawning, among others).
Results: Several differences were found between the owner-present and the owner-absent groups:
- Reduced vocalizations and increased yawning: When owners were present, dogs vocalized less but yawned more than when they were absent. Less frequent vocalizing was interpreted as an indicator of lower anxiety or stress. (Yawning? Not sure…. see below).
- Physiological measures: The presence of the dog’s owner resulted in significantly lower body temperatures in male and female dogs and reduced heart rates in female, but not male dogs. These changes also suggest reduced levels of stress or fear in the presence of the owner.
- Examination responses: Overall, physical examination was mildly to moderately stressful to the dogs, regardless of having their owner present or absent. The portions of the examination that generally caused the greatest degree of distress were those that involved physical handling and respiration measurements.
Take Away for Dog Folks
This study found that several key indicators of stress in dogs – vocalizations, body temperature, and heart rate – were reduced when the dogs’ owners were present in the room with their dog during a veterinary examination. The authors suggest that this effect may be influenced by two, not mutually exclusive, responses:
- First, the owner’s presence serves as a social buffer or secure base that reduces their dog’s fear and increases his/her confidence (remember, we have corroborating evidence for this one) and
- Second, the owner’s absence may trigger separation-related fears and anxieties in some dogs (i.e. independently of the veterinary examination). The fact that all dogs experienced some level of fear/stress during the examination process suggests that this could be a factor for some dogs.
What about yawning? Some may find the increased yawning during the presence of the owner to be perplexing. However, other studies in dogs (and other species) suggest that yawning is a context-specific behavior that has several functions. While yawning can signal mild stress, it can also act as a “contagious” social signal that is often used between familiar or bonded individuals (see “I Yawn for Your Love” for more detail). Regardless, this particular result needs additional study to find out if it is truly a robust and consistent effect of owner presence.
Still Be There (when it is safe, in a covid-controlled world): The authors of this paper, similar to those in the 2017 paper, state: “dog owners should be encouraged to remain with their dog during routine veterinary examinations or procedures whenever possible“. They also note that the influence of owner anxiety, if present, requires study to determine whether a highly anxious owner may negatively affect a dog’s emotional response (Note: This issue has not been studied, to date).
My opinion remains the same, with additional support from science. We should be there for our dogs. They depend upon us as their caretakers, for comfort, and as their secure base. While almost all dogs experience some degree of stress during a medical examination (just as we do!), staying with them to provide support and comfort can effectively reduce their fear and stress.
Cited Study: Stellato AC, Dewey CE, Widowski TM, Niel L. Evaluation of associations between owner presence and indicators of fear in dogs during routine veterinary examinations. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2020; 257:1031-1040.