Responses of Shelter Dogs to Human Interaction

Domestic dogs are highly social pack animals with an advanced ability to form complex relationships and to read and interpret human behavior, innately so from the first trial with little to no learning curve regardless of age or rearing.  They display a strong attachment for their owners and other familiar people that studies have shown to be analogous to human attachment behaviors.

Sadly, millions of dogs are relinquished to animal shelters each year.  In addition to the loss of the attachment bond between relinquished dogs and their former owners, dogs in shelters are subjected to near constant psychological and physical sources of stress.   A large number of studies have been carried out focused on means of reducing stress for these dogs.  Reduction of stress is critical, because more relaxed dogs engage more with potential adopters and are more likely to exhibit traits such as curiosity and playfulness that potential adopters consider positive and appealing.  One of the more successful interventions is to provide one on one human contact by using volunteers to walk and play with shelter dogs.

A recent study (Wagging more, barking less: Glucocorticoid and behavioral responses of shelter dogs to human interaction), used our Corticosterone EIA Kit, K014, to measure changes in changes in corticosterone levels in fecal and urine samples to examine more closely the impact these volunteer socializers have on the human/dog bond and on the stress levels of their charges.   This study compared dogs consistently walked by the same volunteer (promoting opportunities for bonding between the pair) to dogs walked on the same schedule, but by different volunteers each day. The shelter involved in the study was so successful in getting its dogs adopted quickly that the study was limited in both the number of dogs (8) and the length of time each dog could be observed with the human interaction (3 visits over the course of 1 week).   Study dogs were randomly assigned to either the consistent or varying human interaction group and human volunteers were also randomly assigned to either interact solely with an individual dog, or rotate through the dogs in the “varying” group.   Before each interaction dogs were videotaped in their kennels for behavior analysis, then volunteers opened the kennel door and timed how long it took the dogs to make contact with them.   Once contact was achieved, the dogs were leashed and taken on a 15 minute walk as per the shelter’s existing protocols, followed by 15 minutes of interactive play before being returned to their kennel.   Urine and fecal samples were collected while walking.

Urine and fecal samples were assessed for corticosterone using the Arbor Assays DetectX Corticosterone EIA kit, with measurements in urine being correlated to creatinine concentration to normalize for variations in urine volume and concentration. In this study no difference was observed between the dogs interacting with one consistent person versus the dogs interacting with varying people.   This may have been due to the limitations of this particular study, both small sample size and short duration with each dog.

Regular positive human interaction is key for managing stress levels, improving mental health, and maximizing the adoptability of shelter dogs.  At Arbor Assays we love all pets, and we’re always excited to see our kits being used to improve the lives of rescued animals who must be housed in shelters on their way to new forever homes.

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