Behavior and Training · Behavior Assessments · dog-human relationship · Health · Science · science dog courses · Veterinary Care

Still Be There……Once it is Safe

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).


FEARFUL BODY POSTURE/FACIAL EXPRESSION

Results: Several differences were found between the owner-present and the owner-absent groups:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Bottom Line?

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.


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8 thoughts on “Still Be There……Once it is Safe

  1. Thank you for sharing a summary of this article! It grabbed my attention because at the animal shelter I work at, we often have behavior trainers that are familiar to the dog handle for medical procedures. These dogs are usually on behavior modification plans for fear or handling sensitivities. Anecdotally, it seems like having the familiar person handle minimizes behavioral regression and that majority of the dogs are more comfortable than they’d be with an unfamiliar person. We have had some staff concerned that the dog might sensitize to them but that has rarely happened. I wonder if there has been any shelter research in this area? Even though the dogs are non-owned, they do seem to benefit (though I should mention that they are usually long-hold animals so might have more time to develop a relationship with staff than a short length of stay shelter dog).

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    1. Hi Lauren! Thanks for posting and sharing your experiences with fearful dogs in a shelter environment. Although not exactly the same, this research and the previous paper does provide evidence to support having a familiar trainer handle your dogs during examinations. I actually think there are some data regarding shelter dogs responses to familiar vs. unfamiliar handlers (cortisol measure, possibly?) but do not think there are any specific to veterinary examinations. I will keep my eyes open for newly published work, for sure! Hope you are well, staying safe, and that your work is going well for you! Best, Linda

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  2. I would be very interested to see research into the effects of owner anxiety. I once convinced myself that Sophy, my papillon, was suffering from anaphylactic shock following a wasp sting. I drove straight to the vets, and dashed in with Sophy in my arms – she was shaking and unable to walk, ears and tail drooping (never good signs in papillons). The vet nurse took her from me, examined her, and said she could find nothing except the tiniest bump at the site of the sting. My shoulders and heart rate dropped, Sophy’s ears and tail went up, and a few seconds later she was prancing round the reception area begging for treats. It was an object lesson in how contagious anxiety can be, especially between trusted human and dog.

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  3. I have a reactive dog who will bite. We have found that if I give the leash to one of the vet techs he calms down and doesn’t try to bite anyone. They say he is being protective of me. He always wears a muzzle when out in public. I am sure he is still stressed… but he isn’t dangerous.

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  4. I would add that a Fear Free certified practice will also have cooperative approach handling procedures in place to reduce the stress on the dog – and they will often have protocols that also help the owner to be less stressed about procedures – therefore the dog is stressed too.

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    1. Hi Becky – Great question. My understanding has been that the Fear Free movement in veterinary clinics focuses primarily upon gentle handling and the use of +R by veterinarians and vet technicians when they work with animals, as well as creating a low-stress environment. I was not sure how much focus is placed on owner interactions. However, see DoggyMom’s great post above, stating that Fear Free certified practices include protocols for helping owners. (I am not sure if this includes making sure that the owner is present, but it is definitely a great thing to hear about)! Thanks for posting! Linda

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