With dogs in the house, returning home—from a day at work or a trip to the mailbox—is cause for celebration, a wagging tail, the gift of a ball at your feet or even a little dance. You’re home! You’re home! But have you ever wondered why some parties are bigger than others?
Recently, two Swedish researchers discovered that how long we’re gone makes a difference. In their study (published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in January 2011), Therese Rehn and Linda J. Keeling videotaped individuals’ family dogs on three different occasions while they were at home alone for periods of a half-hour, two hours and four hours.
In each case, the dogs spent nearly all their time alone lying down. (Other studies have shown that in households with more than one dog, there’s less lying about when the humans are gone; there’s an approximately 12 percent difference in activity levels.) The key difference in behavior in this study came during the reunion: After the two- and four-hour separations, the dogs welcomed their humans with greater exuberance than after a half-hour absence— exhibiting more frequent lip-licking, body-shaking and tail-wagging.
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According to Rehn and Keeling, the more intense greeting behavior may indicate a desire to reinstate the relationship and/or may be the animals shaking off stress. In any case, the important takeaway is that dogs are affected by the duration of their solo time. The study doesn’t reveal whether they are actually missing their humans, but it does suggest that dogs feel the time— and that has welfare implications we can’t ignore.