Can a dog in your shelter benefit from just one sleepover with a foster? You bet, and we’ve got the research to back it up!

A little over a year ago, Maddie’s Fund® gave a grant to Carroll College to answer that very question, funding the first sleepover pilot study at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT, in June 2016. This year, Arizona State University’s Canine Collaboratory is benefiting from a Maddie’s® Idea Lab grant, and expanding the research to four shelters across the country including Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix, AZ; Humane Society of Western Montana in Missoula, MT; DeKalb Animal Services in Decatur, GA; and in Dallas at the SPCA of Texas.

The objective was to understand how overnight sleepovers with a foster caregiver affected shelter dogs’ cortisol levels, which can be indicative of stress. The researchers also wanted to see how behavioral observations in foster care relate to what adopters see immediately upon adoption and six months after they pets have settled into their new homes.

As you can imagine, there was initial disagreement about a sleepover’s effect on the dogs. Some thought it was great, allowing the dogs to relax and have a break from the shelter, as well as providing new information about the dog when not in the shelter. Others thought the brief sleepovers cause more stress to the dog, especially when dogs returned to the shelter.

There are a lot of topics in animal welfare just like this. People have different opinions on programs or techniques and we need rigorous science to step in and help us dissect what is really going on,” said Erica Feuerbacher, Ph.D., BCBA-D, CPDT-KA, assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College. “Otherwise, we’ll be left with a bunch of contradictory opinions and not know whether our interventions are having the desired effect or not.”

So, how’d they do it?

“To measure the dogs’ cortisol levels in the pilot study, we collected urine from the dogs the morning before the sleepover, the morning before being returned, and the next morning back at the shelter,” said Lisa Gunter, MA, CPDT-KA, doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. “For the behavioral component, we used questions from James Serpell’s C-BARQ questionnaire, a validated dog research questionnaire that asks owners to describe the dog’s behavior in variety of everyday situations. We collected these questionnaires from shelter staff, the foster home and the new adopters.”

The results may surprise you.

The first study at Best Friends found that the dogs’ cortisol levels significantly dropped with just one overnight foster stay.

“This was great news! We were surprised that less than 24 hours out of the shelter would make such a difference,” said Gunter. “Many of the fosters anecdotally reported that the dogs would often sleep once they settled into the fosters’ home, which was helpful information for us.”

But how about the results once the dogs were returned to the shelter?

Gunter continued, “We found their cortisol levels increased similar to what they were before they left but did not increase. So while the sleepover was beneficial, the reduction in stress did not sustain long upon return.”

(It was with these results that they embarked on the larger study to take more measures with longer sleepovers. So far, they’re finding the results in the newest phase of the study to be similar to what they found at Best Friends.)

 So, what can we take away from this data?

“This data leads us to believe that these sleepovers may act much like weekends to our workweek. They don’t make all our stress go away, but allow us to rest and recharge, before facing the next week,” Gunter said. “We are also surprised by the consistency in our results, as it demonstrates how impactful the intervention can be with a variety of dogs at a diverse range of shelters. Shelters with small populations, ones that are larger and open admission, and those that are limited intake may all benefit from short-term sleepovers.”

Gunter and Feuerbacher said that one of the main takeaways is that short-term fostering can definitely benefit shelter dogs, including the ways quantified in the study but likely in many ways they haven’t yet quantified, such as the increased networking the dog receives by going on a sleepover.

“Another recurring observation that we made was how much the sleepover volunteer became an advocate for their foster dog. They networked the dog, taking it to social events and sharing it on social media while they fostered it,” said Feuerbacher.

What’s more, the foster caregiver’s interest in the dog didn’t end when they brought it back to the shelter; many volunteers continued to actively work on behalf of that dog, checking on his or her adoption status, continuing to share the dog on social media, taking her or him out to other adoption events, and, in several cases, even continuing to foster the dog after the research component was over.

Feuerbacher added,We sometimes think that fostering means getting the dog out of the shelter permanently and especially focusing on dogs that need intensive medical or behavioral treatment. However, most dogs in the shelter would benefit from getting a break during a sleepover.”

Another benefit? Brief sleepovers also open the door for a more volunteers to be able to get involved with fostering. “Adding sleepovers to the possible volunteer opportunities is a great way to ensure that volunteers feel they are an integral part of the welfare of the animals and can help strengthen a shelter’s volunteer base,” said Feuerbacher.

As for future studies on this topic, Feuerbacher says that there are more on the horizon.

“We would love to assess how much increased exposure the dogs garner from going on a sleepover and having the volunteer take a specific interest in that dog; and how adoption rates of those dogs might differ from dogs that don’t go on sleepovers.”

Ready to give it a try?

Considering the benefits in stress reduction demonstrated with sleepovers, Gunter and Feuerbacher hope that folks in the community will be more inclined to get involved with their local shelter and give short-term fostering a try.

“As one of our sleepover volunteers said, ‘I can do anything for a day and a half!’ We think this low barrier to entry is something that could have a big impact in the community. If we want animal shelters to increase their impact and save more lives, we’ve got to find ways to extend our reach and help people that want to be involved have a way to meaningfully do so,” said Gunter.

Feuerbacher added, “One of the best things about the sleepover program is that it is fairly implementable at any shelter. It does not take a lot of manpower and can have large effects for the dogs. In fact, if arranged strategically, such as sending dogs on sleepovers during the days the shelter is closed, it can even reduce the workload of the shelter. Interventions don’t have to be expensive or fancy to help dogs.”

Updated: Watch the full webcast below for to learn more!