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Study Finds Different Stress Levels in Dogs Walked by Male and Female Volunteers

Linda Lombardi

A growing body of research shows that human gender can have an effect on human-dog interactions. A recent study examines this in a situation not previously examined: on-leash walks. This study of shelter dogs and volunteers found some differences worth considering when training and giving feedback to shelter volunteers.

Video recordings were made of 370 walks involving 111 dogs and 74 volunteers. Data was also collected from a leash tension meter. Researchers found that dogs displayed more signs of stress when walked by men than women. Men and women also behaved differently: women tended to use more verbal cues and babytalk, while men were more likely to have physical contact with the dogs.

The fact that dogs were more stressed when being walked by men, while they also had more physical contact, may be surprising on the face of it, since previous research has shown that petting is good for shelter dogs. But Erica Feuerbacher, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech points out that previous research has also shown that petting by female volunteers reduced cortisol levels more than petting by male volunteers. “Women might be better at destressing dogs, or at least not escalating stress in dogs,” she says.

Feuerbacher says the on-leash setting is also different. In her research, dogs were found to prefer petting to praise, and shelter dogs especially sometimes preferred petting to food. But crucially, the dogs got to choose whether to interact. “In our research we let the dogs dictate – they only got petted when they approached, and if they didn’t want petting they could move away from us,” she says. “They could control the interaction. That’s quite different from being restrained on a leash and being petted.”

It’s also important to remember that not all petting is the same, and that dogs have preferences. Lead author Hao-Yu Shih says, “Many physical contacts, especially petting, happened on the top of dogs’ head, which dogs generally do not find very comfortable.” In contrast, in Feuerbacher’s research, dogs could exert choice about this as well. “We used more of a scritching, and we also petted the body part that was closest to us, so the dog could control what part of the body was being scratched or petted.”

There was also a sex difference in the dogs, in that male dogs pulled more frequently and had greater leash tension measurements, but an interaction between this and walker gender was found: they pulled less frequently when walked by men. Shih says they considered two possible explanations for this: One was the possible calming effect of physical contact found in previous research; the other, “that stress decreased dogs’ interest in exploring the environment, leading to a lower pulling frequency.” Since the dogs did show evidence of being more rather than less stressed with the men, the latter seems to be correct.

The takeaway for shelter managers seems to be that male volunteers may need more feedback and training about how to interact with dogs. Feuerbacher says research has also shown that women were better at identifying signs of stress in dogs, so this may need to start with better education about canine stress signals. As the authors suggest, women may be better candidates for working with timid or fearful dogs; to make men better at interacting with these individuals, as well as dogs in general, attention needs to be paid particularly to their use of physical contact.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.

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