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Stress and Shelter Dogs
Study looks at how time away can benefit homeless pups.

Animal shelters are stressful places for homeless pets. While classical music and thoughtfully designed spaces can help, nothing can completely make it a comfortable environment. This can affect adopters who can have a hard time predicting how the behavior they see at the shelter may look like at home.

Lisa Gunter, a doctoral candidate studying behavioral neuroscience at the Arizona State University's Canine Science Collaboratory, has embarked on research that explores how we can reduce stress and increase adoption success. Lisa acknowledges that one challenge for shelters is bringing out an animal's true behavior in a stressful environment that looks nothing like home.

As a first step, Lisa wanted to look at the sleepover program at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, the largest no-kill shelter in the country. About 1,600 dogs and cats live there, and it's become a popular vacation destination for pet lovers. One volunteer program lets visitors take a dog back to their hotel room for the night.

The pilot study set out to see how these sleepovers affected stress levels.

Lisa measured cortisol levels, a diurnal hormone that is a measure of stress, at three time points: at the shelter pre-sleepover, during the sleepover, and back at the shelter post-sleepover. She also took a behavioral snapshot of each dog, answering questions such as, What's he like on a leash?, What's he like when he sees another dog?, and What's he like when you come into his kennel?

The impact was measurable. The dogs' cortisol levels were significantly reduced after one night.

"We're trying to get more at the dog's welfare, how they're feeling on a larger timescale, not just 10 or 15 minutes," explained Lisa. "When we saw the cortisol had significantly reduced on just one overnight, that was pretty exciting. We didn't imagine that one night out would make a difference."

Lowered stress levels could allow the dogs to behave more naturally, giving people a better view of their true personality. They also discovered another potential factor into shelter pets' welfare.

Anecdotally, people who participated in the sleepover program reported that after the dog settled down, they would often immediately go for a long sleep. This could be an important finding.

"Getting good, uninterrupted sleep could be one mechanism by which we're seeing this reduction in cortisol," says Lisa. "The dogs are getting a good night's sleep, something they can't get at the shelter because they have a lot of noisy neighbors."

Lisa has been working on this study in collaboration with a researcher at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. They were recently awarded a grant to carry out this study at four more shelters with a two-day sample instead of the one-day Lisa did at Best Friends.

I look forward to seeing more developments and would be interested in seeing the long term effects of getting away from the animal shelter, even if it's just for a few hours. While most organizations wouldn't be able to implement a sleepover program like Best Friends, most shelters do have volunteers who can take the dogs out for a long walk or day trip.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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