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Can You Spare 15 Minutes? Study Shows Value of Brief Petting Sessions for Shelter Dogs

Linda Lombardi

When asked why they don’t volunteer at a shelter, people often say they don’t have time. What if they knew that just 15 minutes of quiet petting could have a measurable effect on a dog’s wellbeing? That’s the result of a recent study.

Research has shown the benefit of repeated sessions of human interaction for shelter dogs. “We wanted to see, if you only had time to stop after work for fifteen minutes and go in and pet a dog, would it have a positive impact on that dog?” says lead author Ragen T. S. McGowan, research scientist at Nestlé Purina.

To answer this question, researchers chose 55 shelter dogs who could safely interact with strangers. The dogs were fitted with cardiac monitors, and saliva samples were taken before and after the session. Volunteers were asked to sit in a small room with the dog and pet them calmly, speaking in a soothing tone of voice. The session was recorded for behavior analysis.

Petting Benefits

Measurements showed that the dogs had lower heart rates at the end of the session, as well as increased heart rate variability. Heart rate variability — whether the distance between heartbeats is regular or irregular — is an indicator of emotional state. Under stress, heartbeats are more regular. The increase in heart rate variability showed that the dogs had become more relaxed.

Cortisol measures did not show a difference, which McGowan says is not surprising in such a short time. She also notes that cortisol can be tricky to interpret because it’s really a measure of arousal, which can be negative or positive. However, the fact that cortisol did not increase suggested that the dogs were not stressed by the experience.

The dogs’ behavior also showed increased signs of relaxation, although the study did note individual differences, with the dogs falling into three general groups. “We had a good portion of the dogs that enjoyed this so much that they just melted into a puddle in the person’s lap,” she says. “We had other dogs that enjoyed it but also enjoyed walking around checking out the room, then going back to the person.” The third group seemed to not quite get it. “They stood at the door, like they were saying, ‘Are we going for a walk now? What are we doing in this room?’ ” she says. “But regardless, in all the dogs we saw a positive impact in their behavior.”

Volunteers Benefit Too

Erica Feuerbacher of Virginia Tech, who studies shelter dog welfare, calls this study “fascinating and very important.” She says, “The idea that you can just pop in and spend 15 or 20 minutes with a shelter dog and improve its welfare opens the door for more people to interact meaningfully with shelter dogs and know that they’re making a difference.”

Since the study shows the value of just sitting quietly with a dog, it also opens up opportunities for volunteers who don’t have the physical ability or inclination for more strenuous types of interaction, she says.

Volunteer training is important, since first meeting a stranger is exciting, and most people aren’t naturally inclined to greet dogs in a calm way. Volunteers for the study were given specific instructions on how to pet and interact with the dogs. “I don’t think it would take too long to train people to interact appropriately and let the dog have some say in whether they want to approach and interact,” Feuerbacher says.

The study also highlights the importance of providing shelter dogs opportunities to relax. McGowan says the interaction in the study was different from what dogs usually had with volunteers at this shelter. “In most cases the volunteers walk dogs, so dogs see a volunteer and think, ‘Oh, I’m going on a walk,’ which is exciting,” she says. “We wanted to try to trigger the opposite positive emotion, that state of relaxation, because that’s something shelter dogs often don’t get much opportunity for.”

Relaxation Nation

Dogs in shelters are already in a stimulating environment, with lots of noise and activity, but often the only enrichment they get provides even more stimulation. “You go into a shelter and often the dogs are bouncing off the walls, and there is the idea that they have this pent-up energy and what they need is to get out and run,” says Feuerbacher. “We’re now starting to challenge that notion a little bit. Do we know, is that really what they need?”

A lot of what we do with our dogs at home — cuddling on the couch watching TV, say — is like the calm interaction in this study. While it seems as if we’re doing nothing, it’s an important bonding experience. And while shelter dogs may appear to already spend a lot of time doing nothing, it’s a different kind of nothing. “They may be doing nothing active, but are on high alert the whole time, rather than getting to relax,” she says.

Shelters can give dogs breaks from that stimulation in several ways. One that Feuerbacher suggests is an office foster program, where a dog gets to hang out in someone’s office at the shelter for a few hours.

McGowan also notes that relaxed dogs are easier to work with. Sitting quietly with a dog for 15 minutes ahead of a veterinary exam or grooming is worthwhile for everyone involved, she says. “Spending that time to get that dog into a more positive relaxed state ahead of that handling makes the whole interaction go a lot easier.”

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 who 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.