Neil Farber M.D, Ph.D., CLC, CPT

The Blame Game

Being a Dog’s Best Friend

7 Things You Can Do to Improve the Lives of Dogs

Posted Mar 18, 2018

I was lucky enough (please see my previous article on 8 Habits of Highly Lucky People) to be able to co-write this article with Lisa Gunter, a graduate student in Psychology at Arizona State University. The "we" in the article refers to the Clive Wynne Canine Science Collaboratory, where Lisa is completing her PhD.

Pexels - used with permission
Source: Pexels - used with permission

Humans have been loving on dogs for thousands of years. Canine scientist, Angela Perri, travels the world learning about the origins of dogs, particularly our closeness with them across cultures, and she has compelling evidence that this human-dog connection runs pretty deep.

Despite this bond, our relationship with dogs is complicated, and it doesn’t always work out as well as we’d hope. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that in the United States, over three million dogs enter animal shelters each year. This is a decrease of over half-a-million dogs (15%) compared to just six years ago. Along with fewer dogs in shelters, the fate of homeless dogs is improving with more adoptions and reunions with owners and less euthanasia.1

Yet while we’re saving the lives of more dogs, those that remain are waiting longer to find those new homes.2 Your local pound may no longer be just a temporary port in the storm for homeless pets but more like an orphanage where stays of weeks are not uncommon.3 This is where we believe science can improve the lives of homeless dogs.

Our research group is the Canine Science Collaboratory, directed by Dr. Clive Wynne, and we’re at Arizona State University. We spend our days (and lots of nights!) studying the behavior and cognition of dogs and their wild relatives – and we have a particular interest in the adoption, relinquishment, and welfare of dogs. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you do too, so here are seven things you can do to help man’s best friend.

Exactly who are these dogs in shelters you may be wondering? Usually they’re youngsters, under two years of age. They find themselves at the shelter when they’re surrendered by their owners or found as strays, likely someone’s pet that got lost along the way.

Which brings us to Point #1: make sure your dog is wearing an identification tag or collar with your current information; your phone number, address, and a microchip that’s also up-to-date. Your dog can avoid the shelter all together when he’s lost if someone finds him and gets in touch with you. Studies have found that even if your dog ends up at the shelter, the chances of reuniting with you are much higher when your pup carries his ID.4

Back to that “who” question about shelter dogs. What breeds of dogs will you find at your local shelter? It’s a much more complicated question than you might imagine, because figuring out what breed or breeds a mixed breed dog is, just by looking at the dog, is quite difficult.

Arizona Animal Welfare League - used with permission
Source: Arizona Animal Welfare League - used with permission

That’s because dogs in shelters are usually not just one breed, or two – often they’re three and sometimes even more. In a study we carried out with nearly a thousand dogs at Arizona Animal Welfare League in Phoenix, AZ, and San Diego Humane Society using the MARS Wisdom Panel™, we found less than 5% of dogs were purebred. What’s more, over a hundred breeds were identified in the breed ancestries of these shelter dogs with some pretty amazing combinations. Would you have guessed that Bruce, our small curly-coated boy in the photo, is a Beagle-Cocker Spaniel-Labrador Retriever? Nope, we wouldn’t have either!

Which brings me to Point #2: it’s worth checking out your local shelter when you’re ready for your next canine companion. Research by PetSmart Charities indicates that plenty of potential adopters skip the shelter because a lack of (perceived) inventory.5 Our research, though, suggests that there’s likely an assortment of canine varieties to choose from, with dogs like Bruce and other one-of-a-kind mixes.

The Shelter Pet Project - used with permission
Source: The Shelter Pet Project - used with permission

Even if you do know the pup’s breed or breed mix, dogs, like people, are individuals with unique sequences of DNA and experiences that influence who they are and how they behave. So Point #3: leave your breed assumptions at the (doggy) door. Treat each dog as an individual and get to know him or her. Certainly, breeds can have special skills, like retrievers and pointers, but there’s also a lot of within breed variation. Mix together multiple breeds, and it becomes hard to predict how those breeds will interact to influence the behavior of your Heinz 57.

And with that, Point #4: don’t judge a dog by its cover. Research we’ve carried out in the Collaboratory, which you can check out here, suggests that we get ideas in our heads about how a dog is going to behave based on their appearance – and the breeds we label dogs with can also influence our perceptions about their behavior.6

What’s a dog lover to do? If you’re adopting or just meeting a dog (and their person) on the street, don’t assume their ancestry and get ideas about how they’re going to behave. That blockheaded, meatball-of-a-dog that you would have otherwise walked on past, just might surprise you with how much he loves a good cuddle!

Lisa Gunter - used with permission
Source: Lisa Gunter - used with permission

Earlier, we mentioned that dogs are staying longer in shelters as they wait for their new homes. What can we do to improve their stays? This was a question we had, along fellow dog scientist Erica Feuerbacher at Virginia Tech University. To answer it, we traveled to Kanab, UT, and worked with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. The Sanctuary has a sleepover program where dogs leave the shelter with a volunteer, stay at their place for a night, and come back the next morning. Best Friends developed the program to learn more about the dogs and give them a break from the shelter alongside a two-legged friend.

To learn if these sleepovers were actually providing pups that intended rest-and-recharge, we measured the dogs’ urinary cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone involved in the body’s stress response, and we compared dogs’ levels before, during, and after their sleepovers. What did we find? Just one night out of the shelter significantly reduced their cortisol compared to dogs’ levels before the sleepover – and when we expanded our study and worked with shelters across the country: Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix; Humane Society of Western Montana in Missoula; DeKalb Animal Services in Decatur, GA; and SPCA of Texas in Dallas, we found that two-night sleepovers decreased stress, too, with continued reductions in cortisol on the second day. Upon return to the shelter, dogs’ cortisol returned to levels similar but not higher than before their sleepovers.

Lisa Gunter - used with permission
Source: Lisa Gunter - used with permission

Our take-away: these sleepovers function much like weekends to our workweek. They don’t make all the stress go away, but they allow us a break before facing the week ahead. Shelter dogs need weekends, too! Which brings me to Point #5: it is so easy to help a shelter dog. Many more shelters across the United States have programs just like these short-stay fosters that we investigated. Get in touch with your local shelter to find out how you can get involved and have a canine sleepover at your house this weekend!

Lastly, we wouldn’t want to end this article without giving you some actionable items that you can do right now to improve your own dog’s life. In a study we conducted to learn more about how physical activity impacts the canine-human relationship, we found that owners that felt more obligation and self-efficacy to walk their dogs actually walked more minutes with their dogs each week than owners who didn’t.7 Moral of the story: think it, say it, do it. Point #6: commit to walking your dog, and you will do it. And your dog will thank you for it!

David Beckstrom-Sternberg - used with permission
Sonya and her human companion, Lisa Gunter at Horseshoe Bend
Source: David Beckstrom-Sternberg - used with permission

To that end, it shouldn’t be too surprising that owners that prefer and are motivated to exercise are indeed more satisfied with their dogs.8 But there’s a payoff to all those dog walks and poop bags! Researchers have also found that when owners engage in more activities with their dogs, they report less barking and more engagement in training.9 Thus, our final Point #7, spend more time with your dog. There’s a direct relationship between owner attachment and satisfaction with your dog,10 and shared time together is one way you can increase that bond.

Neil Farber -used with permission
Rex - a former shelter dog with his long-time human companion (one of the authors' mother).
Source: Neil Farber -used with permission

As for other research questions we’re interested in here at the Collaboratory, we’re currently investigating what behaviors dogs do in the shelter that are related to their welfare. By bringing on board not only cortisol, but other hormones from the sympathetic nervous system like metanephrine and normetanephrine that are also involved in the stress response, we can learn more about what dogs are experiencing by observing how they’re behaving. Once we identify these behavioral indicators of welfare, shelter staff can use them as a guide to recognizing and helping dogs in need.

Thanks for following! Hope you're having a dog day afternoon.


Lisa Gunter and Neil Farber

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American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 2017 Pet Statistics. Available at: Accessed Jan 31, 2017.

Protopopova, A. (2016). Effects of sheltering on physiology, immune function, behavior, and the welfare of dogs. Physiology & Behavior, 159, 95-103.

Barrett, K., & Greene, R. (2015, October). Do Animal Shelters Serve People or Pups? Available at: Accessed Feb 12, 2017.

Weiss, E., Slater, M. R., & Lord, L. K. (2011). Retention of provided identification for dogs and cats seen in veterinary clinics and adopted from shelters in Oklahoma City, OK, USA. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 101(3-4), 265-269.

Campbell, K. (2012). Pet adoption & spay/neuter: Understanding public perceptions by the numbers. Available at:

Gunter, L. M., Barber, R. T., & Wynne, C. D. (2016). What’s in a name? Effect of breed perceptions & labeling on attractiveness, adoptions & length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs. PloS one, 11(3), e0146857.

Gunter, L., Protopopova, A., Hooker, S. P., Der Ananian, C., & Wynne, C. D. (2017). Impacts of encouraging dog walking on returns of newly adopted dogs to a shelter. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 20(4), 357-371.

Curb, L. A., Abramson, C. I., Grice, J. W., & Kennison, S. M. (2013). The relationship between personality match and pet satisfaction among dog owners. Anthrozoös, 26, 395–404.

Bennett, P. C., & Rohlf, V. I. (2007). Owner–companion dog interactions: Relationships between demographic variables, potentially problematic behaviours, training engagement and shared activities. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 102, 65–84.

Serpell, J. A. (1996). Evidence for an association between pet behavior and owner attachment levels. Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47, 49–60.

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