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Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being

By Ragen T. S. McGowan, Cynthia Bolte, Hallie R. Barnett, Gerardo Perez-Camargo, François Martin

Category Journal Articles

It is well established that human interaction has positive effects on shelter dogs. This work set out to answer the question: “Does one 15-min petting session make a difference for shelter dogs?” Fifty-five dogs were subject to one 15-min petting session with one of five unfamiliar volunteers, in an observation room at a county animal shelter. Volunteers were instructed to interact with dogs in a controlled manner. Sessions were video recorded for later analysis of dog behavior. Saliva was collected before and after the session to assess change in cortisol concentrations. Cardiac activity was monitored throughout the session. Dog response to the interaction session was variable, but generally positive. Dogs were categorized into one of three interaction categories based on the amount of time they spent in actual physical contact with the volunteer: highly engaged (>75%), moderately engaged (50–75%) or indifferent (<50%). Generalized Linear Mixed models were used to assess changes in behavior or physiology from beginning (minutes 2 & 3) to end (minutes 14 & 15) of the session and also changes in salivary cortisol concentrations from pre- to post-session. There was no significant change in salivary cortisol concentrations (P > 0.05) from pre- to post- session. However, when comparing cardiac activity and behavior from the first two minutes to the last two minutes of the session, dogs had a decrease in heart rate (P < 0.0001), an increase in heart rate variability (HF: P = 0.0006, RMSSD: P = 0.0365, pNN50: P < 0.0001) and changes in behavior (decreases in soliciting contact P = 0.0124, standing P = 0.0225) associated with a positive state of relaxation. Given the results of this study it appears that the answer is: “Yes, 15 min does make a positive difference” for many shelter dogs when that time includes close interaction with a person petting and speaking to them in a calm manner.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 203
Pages 42-54
Publisher Elsevier
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2018.02.011
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Ragen T. S. McGowan; Cynthia Bolte; Hallie R. Barnett; Gerardo Perez-Camargo; François Martin (2018), "Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being,"

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  1. Animal shelters
  2. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  3. Cardiovascular health
  4. Dogs
  5. Health
  6. Human-animal interactions
  7. Mammals
  8. open access
  9. Pets and companion animals
  10. Physical health and well-being
  1. open access