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Dogs' Noses in the News: Scents Reduce Stress in Shelters

Research shows scent enrichment reduces activity and barking and increases sleep

Aromatherapy for dogs has beneficial effects

During the past few weeks dogs' noses have been front and center in news about companion canines. Dr. Frank Rosell's encyclopedic book Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose was published in which one can learn just about everything they ever wanted to know about dogs' remarkable schnozzes (for an interview with Dr. Rosell please see "Secrets of the Snout: A Dog's Nose Is a Work of Art"), Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do in which dogs' noses and numerous scent-related behavior patterns (peeing, marking, rolling in stinky stuff, and sniffing groins and butts) are discussed in detailed also appeared (please also see), and a study by Johnathan Binks and his colleagues called "The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter" was published in the journal Applied Anlmal Behaviour Science. This essay is not available online, but a concise summary that is accessible online can be found in a piece by Dr. Zazie Todd titled "Is Scent Enriching for Shelter Dogs?"

What I like about the study by Binks and his colleagues is its simplicity. They studied 15 dogs at a shelter in Gloucestershire, England, and to enrich their lives they exposed them to four different odors in the same order, specifically, vanilla, coconut, ginger, and valerian, using scented-cloths. The control conditions included using an unscented cloth before the odors were presented and no cloth that was used after the odors were offered to the dogs.

The researchers discovered that olfactory enrichment worked. Dogs often are stressed when they are held in rescue shelters, and they discovered that vanilla, valerian, coconut, and ginger reduced activity and vocalizations (barking and whining) and coconut and ginger increased sleep. Dr. Todd notes that these odors have been found to be beneficial for wombats, sea-lions, Javan gibbons, cats, and rats.

I hope that more studies like this will be forthcoming, because anything that can be done to reduce anxiety and stress in canine (and other) companions benefits both them and us. Also, by reducing stress, dogs might be more adoptable because barking is a trait that many humans want to avoid. Not only are these studies simple to perform, but so too, non-researchers can readily use these results to enrich the lives of the dogs with whom they share their homes and hearts. When dogs are unstressed and content, it's a win-win for all. And, in some instances, it's pretty easy to calm down a stressed and anxious dog and have them feel more comfortable and relaxed.