Baqueiro-Espinosa, U., Lo, T. H., Hunter, R. et al. 2023. Positive human interaction improves welfare in commercial breeding dogs: Evidence from attention bias and human sociability tests. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 262, 105904.

Intensive breeding practices found in large scale Commercial Breeding Establishments (CBEs) raise significant concerns about breeding dam welfare. Large-scale CBE dams spend most of their reproductive lives confined to kennels, with limited access to enriching experiences including positive human interaction. Long-term confinement can have detrimental effects on dog welfare, inducing negative affective states like anxiety and depressive-like behaviour, and leading to the development of behavioural problems such as fearfulness towards unfamiliar people. Evidence in humans and other animals shows that negative affective states increase the subject’s attention towards a threatening stimulus. We tested the impact of positive human interaction on the welfare of breeding dams from a licensed UK CBE. After receiving four weeks of either baseline levels (control, N = 16) or additional positive human interaction (enriched, N = 15), an attention bias test (ABT) was conducted to assess dogs’ affective states. Afterwards, dams’ human sociability level was evaluated using a stranger approach test. Pre- and post-intervention hair cortisol samples were collected to determine the effect of enrichment on chronic stress. In the ABT, we predicted that, compared to enriched dams, control dams would look more frequently and for longer towards the position of a negative threatening stimulus (opening and closing umbrella) and would spend less time interacting with a positive rewarding stimulus (food bowl). In the stranger approach test, we expected enriched dams would score higher, suggesting more affiliative behaviour towards unfamiliar people. Results showed that control dams looked more frequently (p = 0.005) but not for longer (p = 0.148) towards the negative stimulus in the ABT. Moreover, enriched dams spent more time sniffing (p = 0.032) and eating (p = 0.005) from the food bowl. Additionally, enriched dams scored higher on average in the stranger approach test than dams in the control group (p = 0.026). No significant difference was observed in the percentage change of hair cortisol concentration between treatment groups (p = 0.135). To our knowledge, this is the first evidence for attention bias indicating affective state in dogs. This study demonstrates that a positive human interaction used as a form of enrichment can improve welfare and sociability towards strangers in commercial breeding female dogs. However, longer-term enrichment protocols may be needed to influence hair cortisol levels. Dams in large-scale breeding facilities would benefit from additional positive human interaction, particularly near the end of their reproductive life when they are rehomed as pets.

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