Behavioural, saliva cortisol and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs

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Stress parameters that can be measured noninvasively may help to identify poor welfare in dogs that live in private homes and institutions. Behavioural parameters are potentially useful to identify stress, but require further investigation to establish which behaviours are appropriate. In the present study, behaviours were recorded and analysed for signs of acute stress in dogs. Simultaneously, saliva cortisol and heart rate were measured to support the interpretation of the behavioural data with regard to stress. Ten dogs of either sex, different ages and various breeds were each subjected to six different stimuli: sound blasts, short electric shocks, a falling bag, an opening umbrella and two forms of restraint. Each type of stimulus had been selected for its assumed aversive properties and was administered intermittently for 1 min. The stimuli that could not be anticipated by the dogs, sound blasts, shocks and a falling bag, tended to induce saliva cortisol responses and a very low posture. The remainder of the stimuli, which were administered by the experimenter visibly to the dog, did not change the cortisol levels but did induce restlessness, a moderate lowering of the posture, body shaking, oral behaviours, and to a lesser extent, yawning and open mouth. Pronounced increases in the heart rate were nonspecifically induced by each type of stimulus. Heart rate levels normalized within 8 min after stressor administration had stopped. Saliva cortisol levels decreased to normal within the hour. Correlations between behavioural and physiological stress parameters were not significant. From the present results, we conclude that in dogs a very low posture may indicate intense acute stress since dogs show a very low posture concomitant with saliva cortisol responses. Dogs may typically show increased restlessness, oral behaviours, yawning, open mouth and a moderate lowering of the posture when they experienced moderate stress in a social setting. The nonspecific character of canine heart rate responses complicates its interpretation with regard to acute stress.