Evaluation of Temporary Fostering Programs on Shelter Dog Welfare and Future Behavior in Adoptive Homes

July 31, 2017

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Organization: Carroll College
Investigator(s): Erica Feuerbacher and Lisa Gunter
Grant Amount: $18,654
Project Type: Phase 1
Project Status: Research Complete

Project Summary

Carroll College evaluated a short-term foster program for dogs at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. The results suggest that dogs' stress decreases while in foster care. The researchers observed a statistically significant decrease in dogs' cortisol levels (a hormonal indicator of stress) while on sleepovers. Dogs' cortisol returned to baseline levels after returning to the shelter, but did not increase above pre-foster levels.

Objective(s)

To determine whether an overnight fostering program affects the welfare of shelter dogs as measured by cortisol response; to determine whether behavioral information gathered at the sanctuary, during overnight fostering, or in the home shortly after adoption is most predictive of behavior in the adoptive home at six months post-adoption.

Methods

Objective One: The Effect of Overnight Fostering on Cortisol Levels

  • Samples on 39 dogs were collected at the following intervals: 1) the morning prior to the sleepover, 2) the morning of the sleepover, and 3) the morning after the dog returned to Best Friends.

Objective Two: Behavioral Questionnaires

  • Behavioral questionnaires were completed by Best Friends animal caretakers, sleepover fosters, and new adopters for 47 dogs. The researchers collected these questionnaires from new adopters 2 days and 6 months after adoption to find out which time-point best predicts future behavior in the home. This data is still in the process of being collected.

Results

  • Cortisol data was collected for the 39 dogs in the study. Cortisol levels significantly dropped while on the sleepover, but returned to baseline levels after returning to the shelter. They did not significantly increase above baseline upon return to the shelter.
  • Twenty-six 6-month behavioral snapshots have been completed by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary adopters. Thus far, the researchers have found that the answers provided by adopters soon after adoption were most related to their dogs' in-home behavior at six months.
  • This data is very preliminary and may change as more adopters complete their 6-month behavior snapshots. Behavioral questions for which there seem to be particularly strong relationships between observations 2 days after adoption and at 6 months, include:
    -  Fearful responses when seeing an unfamiliar adult
    -  Fearful responses when seeing an unfamiliar dog on-leash
    - Aggressive responses when barked, growled, or lunged at by an unfamiliar dog when on-leash

Conclusions

The researchers observed a statistically significant decrease in sanctuary dogs' cortisol levels while on sleepovers. However, dogs' cortisol did return to baseline levels after returning to the shelter. While more research is needed, these results suggest that sleepovers help to relieve shelter dogs' stress and pose limited negative effects upon return to the shelter. Sheltering organizations should encourage short-term fostering since it appears to have a positive effect on dogs' stress levels, similar to the way weekends help us unwind after a week of work.

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