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Animal-Assisted Interventions & Canine Welfare

Leslie Sinn, CPDT-KA, DVM, DACVB, Behavior Solutions for Pets, Hamilton, Virginia


October 2020
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In the literature

de Carvalho IR, Nunes T, de Sousa L, Almeida V. The combined use of salivary cortisol concentrations, heart rate, and respiratory rate for the welfare assessment of dogs involved in AAI programs. J Vet Behav. 2020;36:26-33.


In this study, researchers investigated factors that may contribute to poor welfare among dogs participating in animal-assisted interventions (AAIs). Salivary cortisol was used to measure the stress response associated with activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary axis, and the response of the sympathetic–adrenal–medullary axis was assessed using respiratory rate and heart rate. Dogs (n = 19) were predominantly spayed, with a median age of 6 years. Six different breeds, including crossbreed dogs, were represented in the convenience sample.

Saliva samples were collected, and heart and respiratory rate were monitored both at home and immediately after an AAI session. Handlers filled out an extensive demographic questionnaire about themselves and their dog. All data were analyzed, and the following parameters were found to be significant: heart rate at home and after an AAI session, respiratory rate at home and after an AAI session, and dogs subjected to ≥50 minutes of transportation time.

Although all dogs had heart rates in the normal range (ie, 60-120 bpm) and most dogs had respiratory rates within normal limits (range, 10-30 breaths per minute), dogs with the most elevated heart rates had longer transportation times and participated in AAI in rooms with higher ambient temperatures. Only 4 of the 19 dogs had significantly elevated postsession salivary cortisol levels.


Key pearls to put into practice:


There are certain risks associated with AAIs, including burnout of the animals involved. Handlers/owners must be cognizant of the factors that impact their AAI partner’s welfare. In this study, environment had the greatest impact, with longer transportation time (≥50 minutes) to the AAI site and higher ambient temperature (ie, uncomfortably warm for the human participants) at the AAI site significantly increasing heart and respiratory rates. All dog handlers and owners should be educated on how the environment impacts canine welfare. Situations in which high temperatures and prolonged travel time will be encountered should be avoided, limited, or mitigated.


Although only 4 of the 19 dogs had elevated salivary cortisol levels, those 4 dogs were significantly impacted. Based on information gathered via the questionnaire, 1 dog was identified as being afraid of car rides, 1 dog worked in an uncomfortably warm room, 1 dog had an extremely thick coat and worked in warm conditions, and 1 dog entered the AAI site during playtime and was subsequently surrounded by dozens of children. All dog handlers and owners should be educated on signs of stress in dogs and learn to actively run interference for their partner to prevent stressful situations from occurring. Resources are available to help handlers and owners learn about canine body language and become more effective advocates for their dog (Suggested Reading).


The fact that some dogs are not suitable for AAI work should be acknowledged and discussed with handlers and owners. Fearful dogs, dogs that exhibit aggression directed toward other dogs and/or unfamiliar humans, dogs with noise sensitivities, and dogs that become stressed during car rides should not be subjected to the additional stress that accompanies this critical but challenging work, as it may negatively impact their welfare.

Suggested Reading

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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