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Rapid shaping of behaviour associated with high urinary cortisol in domestic dogs

By E. J. Blackwell, A. Bodnariu, J. Tyson, J. W. S. Bradshaw, R. A. Casey

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The occurrence of stress has widely been associated with impairments in learning abilities in animals, although the influence of stress appears to differ with the complexity of tasks. Previous research has suggested that some domestic dogs exhibit both physiological (elevated cortisol) and behavioural signs of stress when newly admitted to re-homing centres. In this study we have investigated whether levels of stress as measured by urinary cortisol: creatinine is sufficient to impair the learning of simple associations. On the day following their admission to a re-homing centre, 32 dogs were trained on one classical conditioning task and one operant conditioning task; 6 days later, they were trained on a second operant conditioning task. Their mean urinary cortisol:creatinine ratio (C/C) fell from 27.1x10-6 to 22.3x10-6 (nmol/l:nmol/l) between these 2 days; a substantial proportion (78% on day 1, 63% on day 7) of dogs had ratios above the range of 5-20x10-6, which is that defined as clinically normal (Bush, 1991), suggesting high levels of stress. The dogs' average time to reach criterion on either task on day 1 was unrelated to C/C or to behavioural signs of stress; this lack of correspondence may reflect the diverse previous experiences of the dogs. On day 7, the six dogs which failed to reach criterion for the operant association were significantly less active and interactive in their kennels than the others. For the remainder, a high rate of learning the operant association was associated with high C/C (in excess of 40x10-6), and a poor performance was associated with fearful behaviour in the kennel. Dogs appear to have adopted one of two coping strategies: either the display of fearful behaviours and an impaired ability to learn the tasks, which may reflect a 'reactive' style of responding, or a higher level of HPA axis activation and an enhanced ability to rapidly learn a new task, which may be indicative of a more 'proactive' coping style.

Date 2010
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 124
Issue 3/4
Pages 113-120
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
Author Address Anthrozoology Institute, Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, Langford BS40 5DU,
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Conditioning
  3. Cortisol
  4. Creatine
  5. Dogs
  6. Glucocorticoids
  7. Hydrocortisone
  8. Kennels
  9. Learning ability
  10. Learning capacity
  11. Mammals
  12. peer-reviewed
  13. Pets and companion animals
  14. ratios
  15. urine
  1. peer-reviewed