For Anxious Dogs a Little Love Goes a Long Way

By Ken Tudor, DVM on Nov. 6, 2014

We all know how our furry friends enjoy a good pet. Well, it is amazing how little time is required for petting to make a big difference in their stress levels. At the 2014 American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Symposium researchers presented an abstract synopsis of a yet to be published study of 15-minute petting sessions with shelter dogs. The results are illuminating and really reinforce the impact of companionship in helping shelter dogs adjust to potential adoption.

The Dog Stress Study

Fifty-five shelter dogs were subjected to one 15-minute petting session with an unfamiliar volunteer at a county animal shelter. The sessions were videotaped and the volunteers were given specific instructions on how to interact and pet the subject dogs. Saliva was collected from the dogs to analyze their body cortisol, or stress hormone, levels before and after petting. The heart rate of the dogs was also monitored for the entire 15-minute session.

As expected there was a great deal of variation of response depending on the age, temperament, coping styles, and time spent in the shelter among the animals. In fact, cortisol levels before and after petting were not different. This suggests that stress was still a constant despite the petting session. Another explanation is that 15 minutes is a relatively short period of time to detect significant changes in body cortisol levels in saliva and would not reflect potential real changes in cortisol secretion. 

What was observed was a statistically significant decrease in heart rate and behavior changes consistent with a positive state of relaxation. The observation of the researchers is that “yes, 15 minutes does make a difference” for many shelter dogs.

The Implications of the Dog Stress Study

If only 15 minutes can make a difference, what difference could multiple 15-minute sessions make in the re-socialization of abandoned or lost pets? This study reminds me of an experience I had while working at a veterinary hospital prior to acceptance to veterinary school.

As a lowly kennel person, my job was to ensure the cleanliness of the runs and cages of our hospitalized animals and ensure constant and adequate care and feeding. One of my charges was a dog, without a current rabies vaccination, being held for the mandatory observation period of ten days after biting someone. The dog was extremely aggressive and would not allow anyone to enter his run without attacking.

Initially, I had to hose down his run with him in it. I tried to minimize getting him wet but it was mostly dependent on his mood to charge the hose or not. Feeding him and changing his water was a real challenge because I had to enter the run. I devised all manners of diversions to complete the task. But I was determined to win his trust, so after cleaning and feeding I would sit down outside and lean back against the chain-link door of the run for 20-30 minutes after I had clocked out from work.

Within days he approached closer, until one night he licked my ear through the chain-link. I offered my fingers and he eagerly licked them. The next day I entered the run and he rushed to me with his tail wagging and allowed me to pet him while he licked crazily at my hands. From that point I was able to put a leash on him and give him multiple walks outside and he was perfectly behaved. With his newfound freedom he even befriended the veterinarians and other staff members. At the time of his release, with his current rabies vaccine, his owners could not believe his behavior change. He was definitely conflicted between me and his owners when it came time to leave, but he made the right choice and jumped in their car.


My Point

Daily, I interact with people from all walks of life who volunteer at animal shelters. Their primary job is to interact with the animals and provide that human bond that these animals need. The experiences of these volunteers and mine as a pre-vet have shown what these researchers have now proved: Fifteen minutes and more attention can make a big difference for our furry friends.

Dr. Ken Tudor


McGowan RTS, Bolte C. Impact of a 15-minute petting session on shelter dog well-being. Ahead of publication

Image: Pets Adviser / Flickr


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Ken Tudor, DVM


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