When I was a little girl, my cat Pretzel made it clear that she was not a fan of car rides. Luckily, my mom had a brilliant idea.
“Let’s put your sweatshirt inside her carrier instead of that blanket,” she suggested. “It’s soft and smells like you. I bet she’ll find it comforting.”
It helped a lot, and decades later, I still stash a piece of clothing or a toy that smells like me for my pets when they go to a friend’s house or boarding facility. In fact, veterinary research has shown animals respond positively to many scents, not just our own -– it’s one reason why pheromone dispensers are a common sight at Fear Free practices.
We also know that a dog’s sense of smell is exponentially stronger than that of humans; dogs have up to 220 million scent receptors in their noses, while humans have approximately five million. That’s why dogs are trained to find missing hikers, search for the scat of endangered species, locate smuggled narcotics, and even detect changes in blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
With such powerful sniffers, it’s no surprise that scents can affect dogs’ behavior and comfort levels. That’s why a team of British researchers decided to study whether essential oils could reduce stress and improve the welfare of dogs in shelters.
“The behavioral effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter” (Applied Animal Behaviour Science, May 2018), focused on four scents: vanilla, coconut, valerian, and ginger. Fifteen dogs of different breeds, genders, ages, and sizes who had already stayed two to 21 months at two animal shelters in the United Kingdom were exposed to six different “olfactory conditions” — four different cloths scented with the essential oils, in addition to two controls (an unscented cloth and a control situation without any cloth present).
The dogs were in serious need of environmental enrichment, receiving just two 10-minute walks a day. Eight were former strays, four were owner surrenders, and three had been transferred from another shelter. The two-hour observation sessions were scheduled well away from the dogs’ meals and walks to prevent anticipation from clouding the results. Researchers placed the cloths in the center of each enclosure, and the dogs were able to touch or otherwise “interact with” them.
The odors proved to have significant positive effects on stress indicators in the dogs. All four scented cloths led to lower levels of vocalizing (such as barking, growling, or whining) as well as less time spent pacing or moving during exposure to the oils, and more time resting. During exposure to the coconut and ginger samples, the dogs spent an increased amount of time sleeping.
Because barking and excessive activity are typically signs of stress in shelter dogs — not to mention being undesirable behaviors in the eyes of many adopters — the study concluded that exposure to the odors of vanilla, coconut, valerian, and ginger has the potential to reduce stress in shelter dogs.
Ultimately, the findings offer promising news about using environmental enrichment to enhance the lives of dogs in shelters, as well as in our homes. If you’d like to conduct your own experiment, dab a drop or two of vanilla, coconut, ginger, or valerian-scented essential oil onto a bandana. Let your dog sniff the bandana. If she responds positively, tie the bandana around her neck. She might bark less or even settle down for a snooze. One way or another, the activity and the attention from you will provide your dog with mental stimulation and strengthen the bond you share.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.