Friday, July 14, 2017

Can a sleepover reduce stress in shelter dogs?

Do shelter dogs need more high quality sleep? And other fascinating questions raised in Lisa Gunter's research.

How can we reduce stress in shelter dogs? We know that shelters can be stressful environments. There are huge efforts being made by shelters all over the world to reduce stress, both to improve animal welfare but also to prevent otherwise healthy animals from emerging from shelters with behaviour problems.

Lisa Gunter is a PhD candidate in behavioural neuroscience at the Canine Science Collaboratory in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology. I read about her research at Best Friend’s Animal Sanctuary looking at the effect of temporary foster programs in Science Daily, notably a night out of the shelter. What do dogs do when taken out of the shelter? Does their behaviour predict how they would behave in adopted homes? Are there other benefits?

Think about it: animal shelters aren’t exactly the optimal environment for a solid night’s sleep. But when animals are stressed, uninterrupted sleep may be the best medicine. Lisa answered our questions below about work she has been undertaking with collaborator Erica Feuerbacher at Carroll College.

What is your project about? 

We've evaluating the effects of temporary fostering programs on shelter dog welfare and their ability to help predict future behavior in adoptive homes. 

You looked at whether the behaviour of dogs on a sleepover is predictive of behaviour in a home. What did you find in this regard?

We're too early in to be able to report findings in this regard, since we're focusing on the shelter dogs' behavior after six months in their adoptive homes and many are just being adopted or still waiting for their new homes in the animal shelter.

Do you know what period of time the cortisol is reduced for after a sleepover? (ie how long do the positive effects last)

Dogs have stayed overnight in homes for one and two nights. Typically, reductions in cortisol occur during their stay; and when the dogs return to the shelter, the dogs' cortisol levels increase - but not above pre-sleepover levels. So overall, we see significant reductions during their time away and a return to baseline when they come back to the shelter.

Are there any potential downsides to a sleepover program, eg being brought back into the kennel?

Thus far, we've had fosters report that during their sleepovers, dogs are able to get long bouts of uninterrupted rest, which may be one of the ways by which their cortisol levels are decreasing. Shelter staff report that the dogs seem more calm and relaxed after sleepovers which may help them demonstrate more appropriate behaviors in the kennel. It's certainly possible that sleepovers may not be beneficial for all dogs, so that's a question we definitely want to dig into when we analyze all of our data from the five shelter sites.

You found anecdotally that once dogs settled down at the hotel, they would have a big sleep, and mention that perhaps this is one thing they don’t get in shelters. As a veterinarian in practice I see a lot of dogs and cats with poor sleep due to flea infestation – they wake up throughout the night to scratch. When we treat them for fleas, often they have reduced anxiety. How important do you think uninterrupted sleep is for animal welfare?

From what we've observed with the shelter dogs so far, I think it could be playing a bigger role than we've previously anticipated - and could be involved in processes like immune function and overall welfare in the shelter. Certainly, shelter dogs get sleep, but I think it's those bouts of uninterrupted sleep that need to be examined. Hopefully, the data collected from the health monitors that the dogs are wearing throughout the study will shed some light on this topic!

You found that there are two behaviours that potential adopters respond to positively: when a dog lies down next to a person, and whether they respond to an invitation to play. Why do you think these make a dog more appealing? Are these behaviours more likely to happen to dogs with low stress?

The research you mention is from our former labmate, Alexandra Protopopova, who's now at Texas Tech University in the Human-Animal Interaction Lab. I think the sociability of dogs and their connection with us cannot be overstated. Whether its behavior related to their proximity and willingness to interact with us or how spending time with us influences their stress levels, I think people can have a positive effect on shelter dog adoptions and welfare.

Do you think there is a way for shelters to “scale up” the sleepover model?

Certainly! One of my favorite quotes is from a foster at Arizona Humane Society about how doable sleepovers are. In her words, she "can do anything for a day and a half." I think 1 and 2 night sleepovers are an easy way for the community to be involved with the shelter and positively impact the lives of shelter dogs. From there, who knows? Through sleepovers, perhaps fosters will tell friends and family about their sleepover dog which helps the dog get adopted or even decide to look into longer term fostering with shelter. 

Are there any key messages you’d like to share with veterinarians, vet students or the potential pet-owning public?

So far, we're seeing temporary fostering programs can provide a nice opportunity for dogs to leave the shelter, allows the staff to learn more about them in a home environment and reduce the dogs' stress while they're away. For shelters that are want to develop their foster program or increase the number of foster homes they have, temporary fostering or sleepovers may be helpful way to meet to support those goals!

Thank you Lisa for your time. We look forward to hearing more about this fascinating work!

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