Dogs Shelters & Fostering

Deprived Backgrounds Alter Dog Behavior and Cortisol Levels

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Shelter dogs often come from a variety of backgrounds, some of which may include impoverished early life conditions. These adverse experiences can have lasting effects on their physiological and behavioral condition, according to a recent study investigating the impact of adverse early-life environments on the hormonal and social behavior of domestic dogs.

The researchers compared hormonal and behavioral differences in dogs from adverse early-life environments, such as puppy mills, unlicensed commercial breeders, and hoarding situations, to a control group of dogs during social interactions with an unfamiliar human while in the shelter environment.

The study found that dogs from known adverse backgrounds exhibited significantly higher salivary cortisol levels than other dogs found at the shelter. During social interactions with an unfamiliar human, dogs from adverse backgrounds displayed more fear behavior and lower levels of affiliative behavior. Additionally, dogs from adverse backgrounds spent more time in stationary positions such as sitting, standing, and freezing than other shelter dogs, making them unable to complete a food-based social-cognitive task.

The findings suggest that dogs from adverse backgrounds experience altered hormonal and behavioral profiles, even after they are rescued and placed in homes. Understanding the impact of early life experiences on shelter dogs’ welfare and behavior is essential for Fear Free shelters to develop and implement effective interventions that address the specific needs of dogs from different backgrounds. By doing so, they can provide better care for dogs from adverse environments and help facilitate their rehabilitation.

The study’s implications extend beyond shelter dogs and highlight the importance of considering early life experiences in understanding animals’ behavior and welfare. Adverse early-life experiences can impact animal welfare and result in long-term changes in their physiological and behavioral profiles.

Alicia Phillips Buttner, Rosemary Strasser; Extreme life histories are associated with altered social behavior and cortisol levels in shelter dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 256, 2022, 105693,ISSN 0168-1591,

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Christie Keith is a journalist, editor, and communications consultant with an exclusive focus on animal welfare and veterinary medicine. She is a Fear Free Shelters graduate and Elite Fear Free Certified professional.

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