The Value of Ear Scritches to Dogs in Shelters

In a fascinating article on the behavior of stray dogs in Bulgaria, the author mentions that he worked at the Broward Co Animal Shelter in FL after graduating high school, where he “saw scenes of dogs in distress that haunt me to this day”.  His reaction to seeing those dogs was highly understandable, even if unappreciated by the shelter management:

In fact, embarrassingly, I was fired from that job for spending too much time petting, playing with and otherwise comforting animals that were clearly suffering. True, I should probably have been doing something more pragmatic and useful like cleaning cages or unloading food bags, but I couldn’t help it: the sight of a suffering dog makes me human[…]

Amen.  But in addition to the fact that comforting shelter pets in distress is the humane thing to do, it’s also SCIENCE!:

I found some solace from my poor employee behavior from this 2006 Physiology & Behavior study by Crista Coppola (coauthored by the autistic animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin). The authors point out that when dogs are housed in an animal shelter, they usually experience a severe form of psychological stress caused by exposure to novel or threatening surroundings, separation from attachment objects, unpredictability of external events, lack or loss of control over the environment, and so on.

The hormonal response to stress – called cortisol – is found in extremely high levels in shelter dogs:

Coppola and her colleagues found that, regardless of breed, age of dog and sex, those shelter dogs that received a pleasant “human interaction session” on Day 2 of their incarceration had significantly lower cortisol levels on Day 9—that is to say, the benefits of this simple pet and play session were found a week later, even without any subsequent interaction with human beings during the intervening days. Honestly, this finding brings tears to my eyes: simple human affection is that long-lasting and important for dogs.

It would induce tears in any human, I dare say.

And Coppola and her coauthors rightly lament that it’s a pity that the vast majority of dog shelters have not instituted routine human interaction sessions with their new, stressed-out arrivals.

In the case of the author’s experience, delivering this humane relief to dogs at the Broward Co shelter got him fired.  Perhaps one could argue that shelters should use volunteers to pet and comfort the dogs so that paid staff can strictly adhere to following the SOPs the county paid to have them trained on.  But I would think that humane treatment of dogs should be included in the SOPs, if for no other reason than dogs not suffering from extreme stress are going to be more adoptable.  Further, I don’t know that I’d want a shelter staff made up of individuals who have no desire to act humanely toward dogs in distress, nor would I want people who feel compelled to comfort the dogs but don’t do it for fear of losing their jobs.  I’d rather have regular humans allowed – and in fact encouraged – to behave humanely toward the pets in their care.


Thank you to reader Jess for sending me this article.

3 thoughts on “The Value of Ear Scritches to Dogs in Shelters

  1. The best idea is to keep the dogs in their homes in the first place.. in an ideal world ( mine) shelters would have a corps of volunteers that would go to peoples homes.. .. and help owners care for dogs.. walk them ,, bathe them .. groom them. help to TRAIN them ( so less end up at shelters). etc.. elderly people who have little matted cock a poos.. cats with mats..dirty dogs.. unruly dogs..dogs that bark out of boredom… people with kids.. and three jobs..or just people who call up saying “I can’t cope and I want to bring my dog in” ( usually to be killed)..
    That way people can get the help they need and the dogs can stay where they are..

  2. Another thing that struck me when I read that was that dogs that are less stressed are less susceptible to disease.

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