A Short Petting Session Improves Wellbeing in Shelter Dogs

For shelter dogs, spending 15 minutes with a volunteer who will pet them when they want is beneficial according to both physiological and behavioural measures.

A 15 minute petting session is enough to help shelter dogs' well-being.
Photo: ESB Basic / Shutterstock
By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Dogs in shelters may be deprived of human company. Can a short petting session help them feel better? A study published earlier this year by Dr. Ragen McGowan et. al. and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science investigated the effects of petting from a stranger and found positive results.

The scientists set out to answer the question, “Does one 15-min petting session make a positive difference for shelter dogs?”

And the answer was yes.

The report concludes,
“As predicted, positive physiological and behavioral changes were evident in shelter dogs even after only a single 15-min petting session with an unfamiliar volunteer. A complete understanding of the human-animal bond from the dog’s perspective is still in its infancy, however this work contributes to the mounting evidence that humans play an important part in the emotional wellbeing of companion animals. As a result of this study it is clear that: “Yes, 15 min can make a difference” for many shelter dogs when that time includes close interaction with a person petting and speaking to them in a calm manner. “
55 shelter dogs took part in the study at a county animal shelter in Maryville, Missouri.

A handler took each dog individually to a small observation room where one of five volunteers – who had never been to the shelter before – was waiting to begin the 15 minute session. The volunteer either sat on a chair or on a blanket on the floor.

Whenever the dog approached the volunteer, they would pet the dog and speak nicely, taking into account the dog’s preferences e.g. if the dog seemed to be presenting particular areas to be petted.

The researchers took measures of salivary cortisol and heart rate, as well as coding the behaviours the dogs engaged in during sessions.

The dogs were divided into three groups based on the results. Highly engaged dogs spent more than three-quarters of the time interacting with the volunteer, moderately engaged dogs spent between half and three-quarters of the time, and indifferent dogs spent less than half the time engaged with the volunteer.

Comparing the end of the session to the beginning, dogs in all three groups had a reduced heart rate. As well, dogs that were highly or moderately engaged with the volunteer had an increase in heart rate variability.

Overall, the dogs spent less time soliciting contact from the volunteer and less time standing up at the end of the session compared to the beginning.

Salivary cortisol samples could only be taken from 32 of the dogs. Results showed no difference in levels before and after the session. However, since cortisol is a measure of arousal rather than stress, this is hard to interpret.

Overall, these results suggest the petting sessions were beneficial for the dogs.

Other research has also shown that shelter dogs like petting. The nice thing about the new study is that it shows just one 15-minute session with a volunteer the dog has never met before can make a difference.

Dogs were only selected for the study if they were healthy and known to be friendly. They had all been at the shelter for at least two weeks so they had had time to settle in.

It’s important to note the dogs were given a choice – if they did not approach the volunteer, they were not petted – and the volunteers were trained in how to pet the dogs.

While more research is needed, the finding that petting from someone the dog had never met before led to behavioural and physiological changes speaks to the value of contact with people for dogs’ emotional wellbeing.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Where does your dog prefer to be petted?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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McGowan, R. T., Bolte, C., Barnett, H. R., Perez-Camargo, G., & Martin, F. (2018). Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 203, 42-54.

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