In a very interesting column that appeared in Scientific American recently by Jesse Bering, I came across some references to a few studies regarding the human-dog bond. The article was mainly about the ability of stray dogs in Sofia, Bulgaria to follow a human’s gesture of pointing. While those findings where very interesting, what really got my attention was an embedded reference to another study done in 2006 by Crista Coppola and Temple Grandin. You might be familiar with Temple Grandin as she has recently gained some popularity as an advocate and spokesperson for autism spectrum disorder awareness. In February 2010 HBO aired a film about her life and TIME magazine selected her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a future post I will be writing about her work and what she has done for the humane treatment of cows.
The 2006 study which was published in Physiology & Behavior showed that the brief touch and interaction of a human with dogs that are in shelters had a surprisingly long and enduring effect on their level of stress. What they found should actually be somewhat comforting to those of us who have volunteered at shelters. Coppola measured levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is an indication of stress levels. Dogs who are in stressful situations have higher levels of cortisol. Most dogs are highly stressed when they are in shelters. They are exposed to unfamiliar surroundings and unpredictable events and this causes a huge surge in cortisol levels.
What Coppola and colleagues found was that if there was a pleasant interaction with humans on the second day of their stay at the shelter, their cortisol levels on the ninth day of their stay were still significantly lower. I find this very heartening. And volunteers should be cheered by this finding as well. Even a little interaction will have significant and long lasting effects on the stress that a shelter dog is feeling. Although most shelters attempt to have frequent interactions with the dogs, this study could help shelters change their policies and see that the lasting effect of interaction on the highly stressed animals is significant.