Dr. Emily Weiss reveals the most expedient way to reduce stress in shelter dogs.
Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about enrichment and what is more important for cats in shelters. I argued that when cats are faced with significant daily stressors—cohousing in rooms with dogs, for example, or small caging that does not allow significant distance between food, resting and litter—enrichment such as music or toys is unlikely to make an impactful difference in their lives.
A really chewy article was recently published regarding the impact of a touch-focused enrichment opportunity for dogs, and the results dovetail with the thesis I laid out for cats. The study focused on the impact on cortisol levels (an indicator of stress) in shelter dogs receiving regular petting outside of the kennel run.
The authors set out to measure the impact of taking a dog from his kennel run and spending 30 minutes in a room, petting him for at least 15 minutes of that time. They found some really interesting stuff. First, they found that petting had a much different effect on the change in cortisol in stray dogs vs. owner-relinquished dogs. Petting the stray dogs lowered their cortisol levels significantly—but not so much for the dogs who were owner-relinquished! Here is the first opportunity to explore the power of the intervention vs. the environment/situation in which the animal lives. The experiment was conducted within two days of the dogs’ arrival, and one would hypothesize that the effect difference between stray and owned may be due to the stress induced through the separation with the owner. From home to shelter is likely a more significant stressor than from lost outside to shelter.
The more meaningful result, however, is that while cortisol significantly decreased with just 15 minutes of quiet petting, the effect was lost very quickly when the dog was placed back into his run. The stress of the shelter run erased any impact from petting. Ugh.
So, what do we do with this information? I would suggest we first acknowledge this is a single small study, and the effect may be due to the housing stress in this one shelter. Further, we know through other studies that cortisol levels can decrease simply with time in the shelter (caution needed here, too, as these are not generalized studies and there is ample data pointing to continued stressors keeping cortisol levels high). And finally, we must think critically about what we do to truly impact the lives of dogs in the shelter.
One might say, “Well gosh, it helps that dog in that moment, even if it is not lasting.” Yes—agreed. And there is no harm in that for sure… unless there are limited human resources and that time spent petting the dog could have more lasting impact doing things known to decrease the stress. Are cages furnished with something soft to lie on? Are dogs provided oral enrichment daily? Does each dog have the opportunity to urinate and defecate outside at the minimum 2 times a day? Are kennel runs consistently monitored to ensure dogs are not sitting in a run soiled with their urine or feces?
Equally important are the resources focused on getting Rover home. Are potential adopters greeted as they walk in? Are folks showcasing available pets by getting them out for quick touches and greets as folks come into the shelter? Are you optimizing social media to best highlight pets for adoption? Is your Adoption Ambassadors program up and running? Is your length of stay to live outcome under 7 days? These are all straightforward efforts aimed at a straightforward outcome—namely adoption.
Look—I understand the power petting a dog has on both that dog, and on us. It feels good to both of us. However, if you want to reduce shelter stress in the most expedient manner? Focus first on getting them home.
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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