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Can Walking Reduce Long-Term Stress in Dogs?

A research study of shelter dogs found a good walk with your dog can go a long way toward reducing stress.


By Claudia Bensimoun

We've all wondered about the different ways one may be able to reduce stress in our dogs, especially before competitions. Chances are if you're feeling stressed, your dog is too! Going for a quick walk can help reduce stress for both competitor and dog alike, improving the chances for a good run.

According to a research paper published in the journal Physiology & Behavior, Dr. Simona Cafazzo and colleagues at the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma did the following:

  • Assessed the welfare of dogs in 8 shelters in the Lazio Region of Italy. 
  • Dr. Cafazzo measured oxidative stress and behavioural indicators.        
  • The variable that made the most difference was for dogs to leave their shelter kennels and be taken on walks regularly. 
  • The walked dogs yielded a higher antioxidant capacity with less anxious behavior and displayed much more sociable behavior towards other dogs and people.

The researchers wanted to study the long-term impact of the no-kill law passed in Italy in 1991. Eight out of forty-seven shelters were studied between 2004 and 2008. After the no-kill law was implemented, there was a huge over-population of shelter dogs. There were also more dog welfare problems and higher management shelter costs. Dr. Cafazzo and colleagues wanted to see how they could improve the lives of dogs with long-term stays at shelters.

What was Studied?

According to the study, the differences in the physiological status of oxidative stress were found to be linked to canine behavioral responses. These behavioral responses included agitation, increased anxiety and other stereotyped canine behavior.

The Study

  • Ninety-seven dogs
  • Healthy mixed breeds
  • Ages between 2 and 7
  • Living at the shelter for at least 2 to 3 years.
  • The researchers took blood samples from each shelter dog in the study.

Blood Analysis

The researchers looked at the following:

  • The concentration of the stress related hormone cortisol - this measures short-term stress. 
  • The concentration of white blood cells - this measures long-term stress.

Effects of Stress on Dogs

According to the study, chronic stress in dogs can cause health problems, such as tissue damage and an increase in their white blood count. The blood analysis done by Dr. Cafazzo and colleagues was helpful in demonstrating if there were long-term stressors and how the body reacted to this.

How was the Study Done?

Dr. Cafazzo and her colleagues observed the dogs for 5 hours each. The dogs that were videotaped and their behaviors were scored accordingly. The researchers were looking for behavior that indicated stress. These behaviors included shaking, muzzle licking, pacing, panting, biting their shelter cages and growling. They also watched out for behaviors that demonstrated low levels of stress like licking, tail wagging and non-aggressiveness with other dogs and people.

Results of the Research

Although the researchers looked at the environmental conditions and temperament of the shelter dogs to see what conditions were directly linked to lower stress levels. Dr. Cafazzo and colleagues found that certain factors had no direct affect on lowering stress levels such as:

  • Whether the dog was a male or female.
  • The size of the kennel at the shelter.
  • Whether the dogs stayed in their kennels alone or together with another dog.
  • Whether the dog was neutered or spayed.

The researchers discovered there was one thing that really decreased stress levels, and that was being walked consistently by a volunteer at the shelter. Dogs that were walked often demonstrated less unwanted behaviors. They were not as anxious or stressed, and enjoyed being around other dogs and people.

The research results were surprising since Dr. Cafazzo examined many variables. The researchers found that, Dogs that enjoyed the regular walk had a higher total antioxidant capacity, and performed a lower frequency of displacing activities and stereotyped behaviour. Moreover, oxidative stress parameters seem to be indicators well matched with behavioral indicators of stress. Thus, for the first time, markers of oxidative status are utilized for the welfare evaluation in the domestic dog. Furthermore, the results of this paper give some suggestion about how small steps can help to improve shelters and, furthermore, this paper intends to solicit the debate on the no-kill policy. (Cafazzo S., Maragliano, L., Bonanni, R., et al. 2014. Behavioural and physiological indicators of shelter dogs' welfare: Reflections on the no-kill policy on free-ranging dogs in Italy revisited on the basis of 15 years of implementation. Physiology & Behavior. 133(June 22): 223-229.)

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.

Photo Credits: 

  • @Katotan | Dreamstime Stock Photos
  • @Olga Vasilkova | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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