Stress & behavior in therapy dogs

Salivary cortisol and behavior in therapy dogs during animal-assisted interventions: A pilot study
Lisa Maria Glenkemail address, Oswald David Kothgassner, Birgit Ursula Stetina, Rupert Palme, Berthold Kepplinger, Halina Baran
Abstract
Animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) have been associated with positive effects on human psychological and physiological health. Although the perception of quality standards in AAIs is high, only few investigations have focused on potential welfare implications for therapy dogs linked to their performance in AAIs. The standardized program “multiprofessional animal-assisted intervention (MTI)” has been carried out in adult mental health care, significantly improving patients’ prosocial behaviors. In the present study, we monitored salivary cortisol and behavioral measures in therapy dogs that participated in MTI group therapy sessions in an in-patient substance abuse treatment facility. Work-related activity (lay, sit, stand, walk, and run), behavior (lip licking, yawning, paw lifting, body shake, tail wagging, and panting), response to human action (taking food treats and obeying commands), and salivary cortisol levels were analyzed over the course of 5 subsequent MTI working sessions in experienced therapy dogs (N = 5), aged 5.4 ± 2.8 years (mean ± standard deviation). Salivary cortisol levels decreased from presession to postsession in sessions 1, 2, and 3. However, only in session 4 and 5, postsession cortisol levels were significantly lower than presession levels (P = 0.043). There was no difference between salivary cortisol levels sampled on a nonworking day at home and work-related levels sampled at the therapy site. None of the behavioral parameters varied significantly over the course of the 5 MTI sessions. Both lip licking (P = 0.038) and body shake (P = 0.021) were positively correlated with the decline in cortisol during session 5. The study results suggest that trained dogs are not being stressed by repeated participation in in-patient substance abuse therapy sessions. Further investigation into the effects of animal-assisted therapy on dogs’ physiological markers and behavior is warranted.