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Mehrkam Receives Grant from Maddie’s Fund to Study Dog Playgroups in Shelters

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. (Jan. 26, 2017) — Dr. Lindsay Mehrkam, assistant professor of psychology, has received a grant of $105,867 from Maddie’s Fund® to determine if playgroups are beneficial to shelter dogs.

The psychology department’s newest faculty member, Mehrkam is a doctoral level board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA-D) who specializes in applied animal behavior. She said that while off-leash access for multiple dogs to play together has been used in many shelters, the concept of playgroups is relatively new in shelter management.

Dogs housed in shelters often show behavioral deterioration that may lead to a decreased quality of life and reduce the likelihood of adoption. Many shelters have implemented dog-dog playgroups as a strategy to enrich the lives of these animals but, Mehrkam noted, virtually no scientific studies exist to determine their efficacy. She hopes her exploratory study will provide the first steps toward a scientific data set on the outcomes of playgroups in shelter dogs.

The study will also assess the physiological welfare of dogs housed in shelters. To determine this, the research team will measure salivary cortisol at a variety of set points before, during and after interventions with the animals. Salivary cortisol is a widely used marker to determine stress and welfare in canine research.

Mehrkam’s work has the potential to demonstrate that playgroups can be an enrichment strategy for shelter dogs and provide quantitative data on which factors may predict playgroup success. Ultimately, this study may produce knowledge that can be directly applied in shelters.

“Knowledge of what factors predict successful playgroups will allow for more effective, safe yet enjoyable off-leash dog-dog play interactions in a shelter setting and allow for sustainable, cost-effective enrichment strategies for shelter dogs,” she said.

However, Mehrkam pointed out that the playgroup strategy remains a hotly debated topic. “Many believe that playgroups produce beneficial outcomes, but others believe that they are more likely to lead to disease transmission or have dog-to-dog or dog-to-human safety concerns.”

The grant will also fund two research fellowships for undergraduate students to work with Mehrkam on the project. The year-long study is expected to begin in May.

The grantor, Maddie’s Fund®, is a family foundation whose mission is to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals. Since 1994, the foundation has awarded more than $187.8 million in grants toward increased lifesaving, shelter medicine education and pet adoptions across the United States.