Is Petting the Key to Helping Shelter Dogs Cope?


Stroking dogs is one of life’s great joys! The advantages of this simple but beautiful action are well known. For people, it can lower blood pressure and levels of stress hormones (like cortisol), and increase levels of various neurotransmitters that improve our mood. It’s not a magic pill, but sometimes it feels like it too.

Recently, research into the benefits for dogs has broadened our knowledge of its incredible power. A study by Jacklyn Ellis, PhD – “Human Animal Interaction and Guard Dog Welfare: The Importance of Type and Duration” – found that the value of petting guard dogs outweighs the value of walking. Quite unbelievable as the consensus has long been that the best way for humans to help dogs thrive in an animal shelter setting is to walk them regularly. Ellis, the manager of the Toronto Humane Society’s Feline Behavioral, Enrichment and Rehabilitation Program and a veteran animal welfare researcher, presented her research at the Virtual Animal Behavior Society conference this summer.

It is known that shelters can be very stressful for dogs. The noise, smells and the lack of prolonged social contact with dogs or people make life in the shelter very difficult for them. Any positive experiences we can have in a shelter – puzzle toys, things to chew on, soft bedding, exercise, play, or good interactions with people – are likely to relieve stress.

Enrichment based on human interaction is currently popular, and much of the research in this area is examining the effects of various protocols: playing, petting, walking, and exercising. However, many animal shelters focus solely on walking, tracking the time dogs spend walking, and using it as a measure of success. The daily walking of all dogs in an animal shelter is very time-consuming for employees and volunteers and therefore associated with high costs. Many animal shelters struggle with inadequate resources, so devoting too much time to a protocol that has not been well studied is a problem.

Ellis evaluated three protocols for human interaction with guard dogs to determine which forms of interaction had the greatest positive impact on the dogs’ wellbeing. A group of dogs were run for 10 minutes four times a day (40 minutes total). A second group was also run four times a day, but at longer intervals: three times for 30 minutes and once for 10 minutes (100 minutes in total). The third group was run for 10 minutes four times a day and had two pats of 15 minutes (70 minutes in total).

The effects of the interactions on the welfare of the dogs were assessed in a number of ways. The researchers measured the dogs’ cortisol levels, oxytocin levels, and heart rate. They also observed behaviors related to positive emotional signs (approaching the front of the kennel, stretching, tail wagging) as well as signs of anxiety, fear, and frustration (licking lips, yawning, barking, shaking off, whining, gaze aversion, panting).

The study concluded that petting the guard dogs improved their welfare and Go instead of just going. The data shows that this was the case even when the total time spent with people was greater for dogs whose only planned interaction was taking walks. The idea that a combination of walks and pats is more beneficial for guard dogs than walks alone is good news as this type of fortification takes less time.

It is possible that the effect reflects the benefits of petting, but it may also be that multiple forms of fortification, regardless of type, are the source of this protocol’s success. Playing and walking, or petting and exercising, can have similar beneficial effects on dogs.

Many more questions must be answered in order to find the best way to improve guard dog welfare in a way that is not prohibitively time consuming. And, as Ellis notes, larger samples than those used in this study are used to draw strong conclusions. However, the preliminary results of this study suggest that petting is just as effective and effective in helping dogs feel better as it is in helping people feel better.

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