Exercise to Reduce Stress in Dogs. Part 1
Like humans, dogs can feel stress and it can lead to changes in their behavior (e.g. undesirable behaviors like barking or biting) as well as changes in their body chemistry. For many people, the solution to stress is often found in a prescription and although not as common, the same can be said for dogs. I have always believed that one of the best ways to reduce stress is to exercise. It has worked for me for over 30 years, and it has certainly worked for Jack, the inspiration behind SlimDoggy. Now, there is some research to support the idea that exercise can reduce a dog’s stress.
In a 2014 study published in Physiology and Behavior, Italian researchers were studying the welfare of dogs in a shelters in Italy. The study was conducted to analyze the impact of Italy’s no-kill policy for dogs, a law that was enacted in 1991, which although has saved many lives, has also led to a growing shelter population. Using blood samples to test for the stress hormone cortisol, oxidative damage, and the amount of antioxidants in the blood, as well as observing behaviors associated with high stress levels (displacing activities like barking or digging), the scientists were able to compare and contrast the overall level of stress in dogs that were in shelters for extended periods of time. One of the main conclusions that the researchers drew from the study is profound. In their own words:
“The results showed that the most important variable that improved the level of welfare of dogs consisted in having the opportunity to regularly go out of the cage for a walk, whereas other variables like gender, size of the cage (small, medium, large), being alone in the cage, and being neutered/entire, had no significant effect on the physiological indicators of welfare. Dogs that enjoyed the regular walk had a higher total antioxidant capacity, and performed a lower frequency of displacing activities and stereotyped behavior”.
This is a pretty incredible result, and certainly consistent with my own anecdotal observations from our dog Jack as well as the many shelter dogs that I have exercised over the years. With proper exercise, the stress levels of a dog, as well as its overall behavior, can improve. Among other things, the implication is that exercise can increase the odds that a shelter dog will be adopted. Said another way, a well exercised dog is a well behaved dog and a well behaved dog is likely to be an adopted dog.
In the U.S. there are somewhere near 5,000- 6,000 animal shelters and the cost to round up, care, and ultimately euthanize un-placed pets is somewhere around $100 per animal (Source: Oxford Lafayette Humane Society compilation). In Part 2 of this article, I will provide some ideas on how an animal shelter might leverage this research as well as calculate the cost benefits that could result from implementing an exercise program for shelter animals.