The nearly 15 million dogs that pass through U.S. animal shelters each year face myriad stressors that often cause antisocial behavior, lessening the animals' chances of adoption. But a new program may help dogs adjust smoothly to domestic life.
Researchers at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter in Ohio had noted that levels of the stress hormone cortisol rose in newly arrived dogs--leading to aggressive behavior--but that 20 minutes of slow petting halted further increase. So a team including Wright State University professor Michael Hennessy, Ph.D., and Fran Linden, director of Ohio's Pet Behavior and Training Services, designed a home-like "living room" for daily pettings. There, dogs are also taught to sit when visitors approach their cage. Shelter pups may feel helpless, says Hennessy; rewarding them when they sit gives them control and reduces the pacing and barking with which they often greet potential owners. Finally, the dogs learn to accept confinement in a pet crate, which gives them a comforting space and is also a key behavior-modification tool for new owners. By easing dogs' stress, the program calms their behavior--hopefully earning them permanent homes.