Is Petting the Key to Helping Shelter Dogs Cope?

More than walking them—petting shelter dogs is critical for their well-being
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2020, Updated November 2020
Petting and walking shelter dogs.

Petting dogs is one of the great joys of life! The benefits of this simple yet beautiful action are well-known. For people, it can lower blood pressure and the levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) and raise the levels of various neurotransmitters that elevate our mood. It’s not a magic pill, but it sure feels like one sometimes.

Recently, research into the ways it benefits dogs has expanded our knowledge of its awesome power. A study by Jacklyn Ellis, PhD—“Human animal interaction and the well-being of shelter dogs: The importance of type and duration”—found that the value of petting shelter dogs surpasses the value of walking them. Pretty incredible, since the consensus has long been that the best way for people to help dogs thrive in a shelter environment is to walk them regularly. Ellis, the manager of the Toronto Humane Society’s Feline Behavioural, Enrichment and Rehabilitation program and an experienced researcher in the field of shelter-animal welfare, presented her research at this summer’s Virtual Animal Behavior Society Conference.

It’s well-known that shelters can be very stressful for dogs. The noise, the smells and the lack of sustained social contact with dogs or people make shelter life really hard on them. Any positive experiences we can offer while they’re in a shelter—puzzle toys, things to chew on, soft bedding, exercise, play or good interactions with people—are likely to mitigate the stress.

Human-interaction-based enrichment is currently popular, and much of the research in the field explores the effects of various protocols: playing, petting, walking and training. However, many shelters focus exclusively on walking, tracking the amount of time spent walking dogs and using it as a measure of success. Walking all the dogs in a shelter multiple times per day is very time-intensive for staff members and volunteers, and thus has a big cost. Many shelters struggle with insufficient resources, so devoting a significant amount of time to a protocol that hasn’t been well-studied is a concern.

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Ellis evaluated three protocols for human interaction with shelter dogs to determine which forms of interaction had the biggest positive effect on the dogs’ well-being. One group of dogs was walked four times a day for 10 minutes (40 minutes total). A second group was also walked four times a day, but for longer intervals: three times for 30 minutes and one time for 10 minutes (100 minutes total). The third group was walked four times a day for 10 minutes and had two petting sessions of 15 minutes (70 minutes total).

The effects of the interactions on the dogs’ well-being were assessed in several ways. Researchers measured the dogs’ cortisol levels, oxytocin levels and heart rates. They also watched for behavior related to positive emotional signs (approaching the front of the kennel, stretching, tail wagging) as well as signs of fear, anxiety and frustration (lip-licking, yawning, barking, shaking off, whining, gaze aversion, panting).

The study concluded that the shelter dogs’ well-being was enhanced by people spending time petting and walking them, versus walking them only. The data show that this was the case even when the total amount of time spent with people was greater for dogs whose only scheduled interactions were the walks. The idea that a combination of walks and petting sessions is more beneficial to shelter dogs than walks alone is good news because this type of enrichment requires less time.

It’s possible that the effect reflects the benefits of petting specifically, but it may also be that multiple forms of enrichment, no matter the type, are the source of this protocol’s success. Playing and walking or petting and training may have similar positive effects on dogs.

Many more questions need to be addressed to determine the best way to enhance the well-being of shelter dogs in ways that are not prohibitively time-intensive. And, as Ellis notes, larger sample sizes than were used in this study are needed to draw firm conclusions. However, the preliminary results from this study certainly suggest that petting is every bit as powerful and effective at helping dogs feel better as it is at helping people feel better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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