The impact of visitor access in a shelter on the welfare of shelter dogs
If you’ve ever been to a shelter to adopt a dog, you know that when you walk into the holding area, the dogs can get very noisy. At the introduction of a stranger to the room their kennels are in, the dogs will start barking, which encourages the other dogs around them to bark as well. Barking has been documented as a stressor for dog, as have repetitive behavior and lots of movement. All of these behaviors seem to increase by the access of visitors to the kennel area. Lynn Hewison and colleagues decided to investigate if preventing visitor access to the dogs could lower stress levels and therefore increase general welfare of the animals.
Researchers determined that a cross-over design would not be possible because the dogs that had access to the visitors would still influence the dogs that had prohibited visitor access. So instead, the set up was two weeks of pre-intervention (which was used as the baseline), two weeks of intervention during which there was prohibited visitor access to the kennel area, and two weeks post-intervention. During the intervention, visitors could still come to the shelter, but instead of being allowed to go back to the kennel to look at the dogs, they were informally interviewed in the office and a dog was selected for them to see. In the two weeks before and after, visitors went back to the kennels to look at the dogs themselves.
Behavior of the dogs was recorded and analyzed continuously in 60-second periods of a 90-second time intervals using The Observer XT. Data analysis only took place for the last 60 seconds to give the experimenter time to leave and the dog time to settle down. Stress and activity-related behaviors were recorded, although many had too few occurrences to be reliable in statistical analysis. Frequency of behavior was recorded for repetitive behaviors, and the dog’s position in the kennel run was noted each time a behavior was recorded. Researchers also kept close track of any sickness events in the dog’s kennel and collected urine samples for analysis. Kennel noise, behavior of the dog, kennel location, physiology, and sickness events all worked towards interpreting the stress level in these dogs.
Does an intervention impact dog stress levels?
During the time period in which the shelter was normally open to visitors, there was a significant reduction in the noise levels of the dogs during the intervention period. The intervention period also seemed to have a significant effect on sedentary, locomotor, and repetitive behaviors, increasing the amount of sedentary behavior and decreasing the amount of locomotor and repetitive behaviors. However, there seemed to be no significant effect on any physiological measures. High noise levels, high locomotion, and high amounts of repetitive behaviors have been linked to stress in dogs, while sedentary behavior suggests that the dog is not very stressed. These results suggest an improvement in welfare due to the intervention.
What does this mean?
Hewison et al. set out to see if changing the type of visitor interaction with the dogs at a shelter would have a positive impact on the dogs’ welfare. While there were a few shortcomings of the study, such as the short time periods used or the fact that a cross-over design was not possible, the results of this study provide evidence that prohibiting visitor access to dogs in their kennels is likely to have a positive impact on their physical welfare and possibly emotional welfare as well. Future studies should look into the form of visitor access that causes the least stress and provides the best welfare for the dogs.
Hewison, L.F.; Wright, H.F.; Zulch, H.E.; Ellis, S.L.H. (2014). Short term consequences of preventing visitor access to kennels on noise and the behavior and physiology of dogs housed in a rescue shelter. Physiology & Behavior, 133, 1-7.