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PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e58475. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058475. Epub 2013 Mar 4.

Human analogue safe haven effect of the owner: behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs.

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MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group, Budapest, Hungary. marta.gacsi@gmail,com


The secure base and safe haven effects of the attachment figure are central features of the human attachment theory. Recently, conclusive evidence for human analogue attachment behaviours in dogs has been provided, however, the owner's security-providing role in danger has not been directly supported. We investigated the relationship between the behavioural and cardiac response in dogs (N= 30) while being approached by a threatening stranger in separation vs. in the presence of the owner, presented in a balanced order. Non-invasive telemetric measures of heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) data during the threatening approaches was compared to periods before and after the encounters. Dogs that showed distress vocalisation during separation (N = 18) and that growled or barked at the stranger during the threatening approach (N = 17) were defined as behaviourally reactive in the given situation. While characteristic stress vocalisations were emitted during separations, the absence of the owner did not have an effect on dogs' mean HR, but significantly increased the HRV. The threatening approach increased dogs' mean HR, with a parallel decrease in the HRV, particularly in dogs that were behaviourally reactive to the encounter. Importantly, the HR increase was significantly less pronounced when dogs faced the stranger in the presence of the owner. Moreover, the test order, whether the dog encountered the stranger first with or without its owner, also proved important: HR increase associated with the encounter in separation seemed to be attenuated in dogs that faced the stranger first in the presence of their owner. We provided evidence for human analogue safe haven effect of the owner in a potentially dangerous situation. Similarly to parents of infants, owners can provide a buffer against stress in dogs, which can even reduce the effect of a subsequent encounter with the same threatening stimuli later when the owner is not present.

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