If you’ve ever been to an animal shelter, you’ll know that the conditions the dogs and cats live in can be quite stark. They’re usually confined in a pen with concrete flooring for ease of cleaning, and there’s not much opportunity for human interaction. These living conditions can result in some pets becoming listless and reticent, and they may develop repetitive and unwelcome behaviors. They are then less appealing to a potential adopter.
This has led to shelters looking for ways to enrich the lives of these pets and make their time in the shelter more enjoyable. They regularly use food-dispensing toys and as much playtime and grooming as they can manage. Today, there are new and novel methods being put to the test.
Music has been shown to calm dogs in a shelter environment. Classical music in particular is very effective in these circumstances. Researchers at Hartpury College in the UK went further and looked at whether audiobooks made any difference to the behavior of shelter dogs. They monitored the behavior of 31 dogs when exposed to audiobooks, classical music, pop tunes, and music that was specifically designed for dogs, measuring behaviors such as lying down and pacing. The dogs were seen to rest or sleep more and bark less while the audiobook was playing, more so than with any of the types of music. It’s thought that the voice on the audiobook provided these dogs with a sense of human company.
A similar program is the Read and Relax (R&R) enrichment program, except that real people read to shelter dogs. Volunteers sit on folding chairs in pens and read to dogs individually. This not only helps the dogs to relax, but also allows those that are afraid of people to get used to the reader’s presence without feeling threatened. A third benefit is that the dogs learn to sit calmly when a person is nearby, instead of barking and jumping up for attention. The reading is usually done in the adoption area of the shelter so people looking to add a dog to their family can see how their potential adoptee interacts with the reader.
Another way of making the shelter environment pleasant for dogs is to tap into their sense of smell. It’s been shown by scientists that canine behavior can be influenced by certain scents. In one Irish study, 55 shelter dogs were exposed to essential oils including chamomile, lavender, rosemary, and peppermint. Chamomile and lavender resulted in more relaxation and less barking than the other oils. This suggests that using a vaporizer to diffuse these two essential oils throughout a shelter can result in less stressed canine residents. It would also make the shelter much more pleasant for human employees and visitors.
Many shelter enrichment programs require more time than the staff has available. For example, it’s not easy to groom and play with every dog as much as they’d like to and as much as the dogs need. Volunteers can contribute by reading to dogs and exercising them. The use of audiobooks and essential oils costs very little in both time and money, and can make a real difference to the wellbeing of shelter dogs. If you want to give back and support your local shelter, try one of the ten methods as listed by LovePets.com here.