What Dogs Love More Than Almost Anything Else Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

What Dogs Love More Than Almost Anything Else Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Jul 01 , 2020


Sean Jones


  • It’s an established fact that dogs living in shelter environments suffer high levels of stress
  • Shelter staff and volunteers walk dogs as often as possible, for as long as possible, to reduce their stress and improve their well-being
  • The results of a new study show that a combination of short walks and in-kennel petting sessions are more beneficial for dogs — and also less time intensive for shelter workers
  • Earlier research suggests dogs prefer petting over praise
  • Humans also receive health and psychological benefits from interactions with dogs that include petting

Most canine companions, even those in loving homes, encounter stress in their daily lives. And while dog stressors are often quite different from human stressors, they are no less significant. In fact, research shows stress can negatively affect the health and lifespan of dogs.1

When they’re under stress, their bodies release an excessive amount of norepinephrine — known as the “fight or flight hormone” — which can alter the gut microbiome and interfere with gastrointestinal (GI) tract motility.2

If your pampered pooch faces some level of stress almost every day, you can imagine how much more stressful life is for dogs living in animal shelters. Thankfully, there are many experts these days looking into the stress shelter pets undergo, and what can be done to alleviate it.

Daily Walks Are the ‘Gold Standard’ in Many Shelters

This past summer, researcher Jacklyn Ellis, Ph.D., a program manager at the Toronto Humane Society, gave a presentation at the Virtual Animal Behavior Society Conference of a study examining the stress reduction effects of petting vs. walking in shelter dogs.

The results of the study, titled “Human animal interaction and the well-being of shelter dogs: The importance of type and duration,”3 suggest that petting shelter dogs is more beneficial than walking them. This might come as a surprise, since it has long been assumed that the best way to improve the lives of shelter dogs is to walk them regularly.

In fact, historically, the success of canine shelter enrichment programs has been measured in time spent walking the dogs, even though the effect has never been scientifically evaluated. Another significant problem with multiple daily walks in a shelter setting is that it’s very time intensive for staff and volunteers. Since many shelters lack necessary resources, spending lots of human capital on a protocol that hasn’t been thoroughly researched may be counterproductive.

Study Shows Short Walks + Petting Sessions Work Better

Ellis looked at three protocols for human interaction, varying the type and length of interaction to determine which was the most beneficial for the dogs’ physiological and behavioral well-being:

  • One group of dogs received four 10-minute walks a day for a total of 40 minutes
  • One group received three 30-minute walks plus one 10-minute walk for a total of 100 minutes
  • One group received four 10-minute walks a day and two 15-minute petting sessions for a total of 70 minutes

To evaluate the effect of the various human interactions on the dogs, Ellis measured their cortisol and oxytocin levels and their heart rates. She also monitored the dogs for positive behaviors such as tail wagging, stretching and approaching the front of their kennels, as well as stress-related behaviors such as lip licking, yawning, panting, gaze aversion, whining, full body shakes and barking.

The study results indicate that a combination of short walks and in-kennel petting sessions are more beneficial than longer walks without petting, even when the total amount of time spent with people was less (70 vs. 100 minutes). This could be good news for shelter staffs and volunteers, because it requires less time and is actually better for the dogs.

Ellis notes that these are preliminary results, and a larger sample size is needed before conclusions can be reached. However, according to applied animal behaviorist Karen B. London, “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.”4

Lots of adored pets end up in shelters for many reasons, so it makes sense that what these animals crave most is the physical connection and touch they’re accustomed to receiving. I’m thankful researchers like Dr. Ellis are working to identify the best approach to maximize stress reduction for pets in the shelter system.


Earlier Study: Dogs Prefer Petting to Praise

A 2015 study aptly titled “Shut up and pet me!” by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Arizona suggests that when the reward is either praise or petting, petting wins paws down. The purpose of the study was to determine not only whether dogs favor petting over verbal praise, but also whether it mattered to them who did the petting or praising — their owner or a stranger.5

The researchers worked with three groups of dogs — shelter dogs, family dogs tested with strangers, and family dogs tested with their humans. Each dog was brought into a room on leash to meet two assistants sitting in chairs.

For the first two groups of dogs, both assistants were strangers, but for the third group, one assistant was a stranger, and the other was the dog's owner. One of the two assistants greeted the dog with praise; the other greeting involved petting. The dog was then taken to a point in the room an equal distance from both assistants, the leash was removed, and the dog's voluntary interaction with each assistant was measured in 10-minute sessions.

During each session, the assistants offered either praise only, or petting only for 5 minutes. Then they switched roles for the remaining 5 minutes. The dogs were measured according to the physical closeness and amount of time spent with each assistant.

The results of the experiment left no room for doubt — every single dog preferred petting to verbal praise. Not only did the dogs spend more time with the person doing the petting, they did so even when it was their owner doing the praising, and a stranger doing the petting.

And when the assistants switched places halfway through the session, the dogs continued to hang with the petting person. It's possible that one of the reasons dogs dig petting so much is because their heart rate and blood pressure are lowered in the process.6

So, whether it's shelter dogs or family dogs, and whether they’re with their own humans or strangers, according to this study and what most of us have experienced living with pets, they choose petting over praise every time. Touch is so important, and our beloved canine companions can't get enough of it. While verbal praise temporarily interested the dogs, it didn't rank much higher than no interaction at all.

According to the researchers, these results confirm that petting provides positive reinforcement for canine behavior. Being petted is likely a naturally occurring reinforcing stimulus for dogs, whereas praise alone isn't effective and may need to be paired with petting or food.7

Petting Dogs Also Provides Health Benefits to Humans

Research on the human-animal bond indicates there is genuine chemistry between dogs and their humans. Daily interactions with your canine companion have a measurably positive effect on your biochemistry, thanks to the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin goes by a number of nicknames, including the “hug hormone.”

In a study published in 2003, dog owners were put in a room and asked to sit on a rug on the floor with their dogs.8 For a half hour, the owners focused all their attention on their dogs, talking softly to them, and stroking, scratching and petting them. The owners’ blood was drawn at the beginning and again at the end of the 30-minute session.

The researchers found that the dog owners’ blood pressure decreased, and they showed elevated levels not only of oxytocin, but also several other hormones. These included beta-endorphins, which are associated with both pain relief and euphoria; prolactin, which promotes bonding between parent and child; phenylethylamine, which is increased in people involved in romantic relationships; and dopamine, which heightens feelings of pleasure.

Incredibly, all the same hormones were also elevated in the dogs, which suggests that the feelings of attachment are mutual.

These studies and others are really just the tip of the iceberg. Understanding the mechanisms of the relationship between humans and animals, and their implications for all species, will keep researchers occupied well into the future.

 Link To Original Article:  https://bit.ly/3nDLWMd 

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