ASU researcher Lisa Gunter focuses on improving shelter dog welfare
Dogs — they’re our best friends but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them: what they daydream about, if they’re really smiling, why they’re scared and how we can help. And until Dug the dog’s magical speaking collar from “Up” becomes available on the mass market, we’ll have to use other means to find out.
ASU psychology doctoral candidate Lisa Gunter has spent several years doing just that. A researcher at the university’s Canine Science Collaboratory, Gunter’s work focuses on improving the welfare of shelter dogs. She recently wrapped up three studies on the topic.
The first study found positive effects related to short-term fostering, the second confirmed a relationship between presumed stress behaviors and dogs’ physiological responses, and the third dispelled myths about shelter dog breeds. The latter is currently under review to be published by the open-access scientific journal Plos One.
“I think the aim of sheltering in general is to be doing things that improve the dogs’ well-being or that help them find a home,” Gunter said. “But a lot of times in shelters, we just don’t know a lot about the dogs. And I think if we know more, we can better help them.”
Sleepovers: Not just for kids
The first of Gunter’s recent studies was a larger-scale roll-out of an earlier study in which dogs from a single shelter spent one night away with a volunteer “foster parent.” In the initial study, cortisolCortisol is a hormone involved in the stress response. levels were measured in samples of the dogs’ urine taken at three separate points in time: at the shelter before the sleepover, during the sleepover and back at the shelter after the sleepover.
That study found that one night away from the shelter significantly reduced the dogs’ cortisol levels.
In the larger-scale roll-out, Gunter’s team, which included Erica Feuerbacher of Virginia Tech, received a grant from Maddie’s Fund to expand the study to include dogs from four shelters across the U.S.: the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix; the Humane Society of Western Montana in Missoula; DeKalb Animal Services in Decatur, Georgia; and the SPCA of Texas in Dallas.
This time around, dogs spent two nights away from the shelter in the home of a volunteer foster parent, and their cortisol levels were measured before they left the shelter, on each day of their time away and for two days after they arrived back at the shelter.
Researchers wanted to look at the two-day post-intervention baseline cortisol level — as opposed to just the one-day post-intervention level — because there was some concern after the initial study that following the intervention, the dogs’ stress may actually increase over the next few days to levels higher than it was before they left the shelter, due to the shock of getting a break and then having to return.
“Some people were like, ‘Well yeah, they get to go spend time in a home but then they have to come back!’” Gunter said.
However, Gunter and her team found that two days post-intervention, the dogs’ cortisol levels were no higher than before they left the shelter for the sleepover. And at all four sites, they found reductions in cortisol levels during the sleepover.
“Our interpretation of [the results] is that these sleepovers are kind of like a weekend to the work week,” Gunter said. “It doesn’t make all the dogs’ stress go away but it lets them go to a house, take a breather, rest and recharge. And then come back to the shelter ready to find their forever home.”
One additional interesting finding was a difference in stress levels of dogs between shelters. What that suggests is that there may be best practices for running shelters that can make them less stressful environments.
Factors such as a lack of social interaction and high noise levels can have a huge effect on dogs’ well-being. According to Gunter, one study even found dogs who had spent six months or more in a shelter showed signs of damage to their hearing.
“The fact that we saw the sleepover intervention working despite the differences in the shelters suggests to us that it would be a useful practice [for shelters to implement],” she said.
Panting and howling? Sure signs of distress
We might think that when a dog pants it needs water or that when it howls it’s just admiring the moon, but we don’t actually have scientific proof of why it’s acting that way. So for another of Gunter’s recent studies, carried out at the Arizona Humane Society and funded by PetSmart Charities, she set out to identify behavioral indicators of welfare by linking them to dogs’ physiological responses.