ASU researcher leads study devoted to reducing stress in shelter dogs

The study found overnight sleepovers outside the shelter can reduce stress

An ASU researcher is trying to give back to man's best friend by reducing the stress levels of sheltered pups.

Lisa Gunter, an ASU doctoral student studying at the Canine Science Collaboratory at ASU's Department of Psychology, has been conducting research on how to lower the stress levels of shelter dogs and found promising results in overnight stays outside the shelter.

“We’ve really begun to focus on re-homing dogs and helping them find new homes,” Gunter said.

Gunter said she believes the process of adopting and fostering has changed, making it take longer for dogs to be adopted and increasing their stress levels.

This specific research project began last summer and is aimed at bettering the experience of dogs while they are in shelters.

“I think we need to enlarge our focus to improve the lives of the dog while they’re there,” Gunter said. “And making sure that we are considering their welfare and doing what we can to reduce their stress.”

She said the study began last summer in Kanab, Utah at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. The shelter has a program called "Animal Sleepovers" where a volunteer can take an adoptable pet to a hotel overnight and provide a "break" for the animal. 

“The premise of it is that a lot of folks come there on these volunteer vacations and it's fantastic,” Gunter said. 

There are many volunteer opportunities at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary that are aimed at making the animal's experience more enjoyable, enriching and stress free.

One part of the study included testing their levels of cortisol, a common stress hormone.

"The reason we’re using cortisol is because it's one way to measure stress in animals, we're looking at the changes in cortisol in the different living situations with the dogs,” Gunter said.

She said the researchers measure the stress of the dog while they are in the shelter, after the sleepover and at the shelter again. The results indicated their stress is significantly reduced during the sleepover and goes back to the original level when they are taken back to the shelter.

Gunter is continuing her research along with her collaborator Erica Feuerbacher, an assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. Anthrozoology is the study of the interactions and relationships between humans and animals.

Gunter and Feuerbacher have known each other since 2002 and said they have remained in contact because of their dedication to bettering the lives of animals.

Feuerbacher said the two share interests and project ideas often.

“We really want to help shelters identify programs that they can implement to help the welfare of their animals and to try to figure out what most shelters can do,” Feuerbacher said.

She said the goal of the research is to find results that can benefit everyone, including shelters, animals and volunteers. Feuerbacher said she looks to the future of the research and mentioned some next steps the team is preparing to take. 

“Their stress dropped significantly, and the next step is to see if stress levels continue to decrease while at the sleepover and behavioral stuff,” Feuerbacher said.

But the research doesn’t stop with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. 

The team continued the research by doing a study at the Arizona Humane Society a few months ago. Feuerbacher said they should have their research completed at different shelters by August of this year. 

Debbie McKnight, the director of animal experience at the Arizona Humane Society, oversees both animal care and behavior. For projects and studies such as Gunter and Feuerbacher’s, McKnight mostly coordinates the logistics.

The study conducted at the Arizona Humane Society was similar to the study done at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary where the dogs were taken over night and their stress levels were tested. The only difference was the time frame. 

In the study done at the Arizona Humane Society, the dogs were tested for two days prior to the overnight stay and two nights after. The overnight stay was also two nights rather than one.

“I want us to be as efficient and effective as possible,” McKnight said. “Rather than just think that something is working I really appreciate when we can test if for sure it is or for sure it isn't so that we can provide the best care for our pets.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @stefmarz on Twitter.

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