By Karen London, PhD

More than walking them, petting shelter dogs is critical for their well-being.
petting shelter dogs
Filip Petronijevic / Stocksy
Petting dogs is one of the great joys of life, and the benefits of this simple action are well-known. For people, it can lower blood pressure and the levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) and raise the levels of various neurotransmitters that elevate our mood. It’s not a magic pill, but it sure feels like one sometimes. But how does petting benefit dogs?

The importance of relieving shelter stress

It’s well-known that shelters can be very stressful for dogs. The noise, the smells, and the lack of sustained social contact with dogs or people make shelter life really hard on them. Any positive experiences we can offer while they’re in a shelter are likely to mitigate this stress. These experiences can be solo, such as providing dogs puzzle toys, things to chew on, soft bedding, and exercise, but human-interaction-based enrichment is currently popular. A lot of research on this type of interaction focuses on playing, petting, walking, and training, but the consensus has long been that the best way for people to help dogs thrive in a shelter environment is to walk them regularly and track the amount of time spent walking dogs to use it as a measure of success. 

Walking all the dogs in a shelter multiple times per day, however, is very time-intensive for staff members and volunteers and thus is costly. Many shelters struggle with insufficient resources, so devoting a significant amount of time to a protocol that hasn’t been well-studied is a concern.

Petting and walking may be the best stress relief for shelter dogs

In addition to walking being time-consuming and costly, it turns out that it may not be the most effective stress reliever after all. A study by Jacklyn Ellis, PhD, found that the value of petting shelter dogs surpasses the value of walking them.

Ellis evaluated three protocols for human interaction with shelter dogs to determine which forms of interaction had the biggest positive effect on the dogs’ well-being.

  • One group of dogs walked four times a day for 10 minutes (40 minutes total).
  • A second group also walked four times a day, but for longer intervals: three times for 30 minutes and one time for 10 minutes (100 minutes total).
  • The third group was walked four times a day for 10 minutes and had two petting sessions of 15 minutes (70 minutes total).

To assess the effect of these different interactions on the dogs’ well-being, researchers measured the dogs’ cortisol levels, oxytocin levels, and heart rates. They also watched for behavior related to positive emotional signs (approaching the front of the kennel, stretching, tail wagging) as well as signs of fear, anxiety, and frustration (lip-licking, yawning, barking, shaking off, whining, gaze aversion, panting).

The study concluded that the shelter dogs’ well-being was enhanced by people spending time petting and walking them versus walking them only. The data show that this was the case even when the total amount of time spent with people was greater for dogs whose only scheduled interactions were the walks.

Tools for shelter success

The idea that a combination of walks and petting sessions is more beneficial to shelter dogs than walks alone is good news because this type of enrichment requires less time. It’s important to continue to explore the best ways to enhance shelter dogs’ well-being, especially in ways that are not prohibitively time-intensive. 

For example, it’s possible that it’s not the benefits of petting specifically, but of multiple forms of enrichment, no matter the type, that resulted in this experiment’s success. Playing and walking or petting and training may have similar positive effects on dogs. And, as Ellis notes, larger sample sizes than were used in this study are needed to draw firm conclusions.

 However, the preliminary results from this study certainly suggest that petting is every bit as powerful and effective at helping dogs feel better as it is at helping people feel better.