Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? — “Maria” lyrics from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music.
Dogs are inspiring moonbeams, with special qualities and needs that require special answers. Dogs are not problems, we are the problem.
No one likes to correct a dog for getting into trouble because their dog is bored. On the one hand, a good owner knows they can’t let their dog tear up the home or do dangerous things. On the other, all good dog owners have empathy with their dogs. A lot of the annoying things dogs do is a result of dogs being dogs by being playful, soliciting attention, and exploring. Furthermore, no good dog owner likes the idea of their dog being under stimulated and alone for long periods on a frequent basis. We all know that boredom and isolation are going to result in behavioral problems, sometimes of a very serious nature.
When I was a young child, I went with my parents to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. I couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old. I still remember the large cement room with metal bars, and several lions pacing around and around in a large circle. Even as a little kid, it seemed wrong to me. I could tell they weren’t happy, and that memory is still vivid. Zoo animals used live very short lives, often wouldn’t reproduce (and when they did, it wasn’t unusual for them to kill and eat their young), were more prone to injuries and strange repetitive behaviors, and often were abnormally aggressive to one another. In many ways, we should ask if that is the life we are providing for our dogs. We should then ask if we are being fair to them by correcting them all the time for this or that. Are our dogs happy living with us?
In the past 100 years or so, many harsh experiments were conducted on animals to try and understand learning, as well as psychological pathologies in humans. A lot of what was learned was what not to do. In the mid-1970’s, zoos were experimenting with giving wild animals something to do instead of mentally and physically decaying in their cement prisons. Behavioral Enrichment concepts, now called Environmental Enrichment (EE), were developed, and tested through formal, funded academic research. That research, and the use of EE, is now mainstream and ongoing, and has extended beyond just zoo animals to now include livestock, pets, and humans.
I have written about the potential problems of dogs in municipal animal shelters, in other words, dogs which are regularly deprived of the basics of accepted practices of animal welfare, and instead forced into severe physical entrapment and biologically unhealthy sensory deprivations and overstimulation.
“Long term, inappropriate kenneling creates neuroses in shelter dogs, resulting in repetitive or severely inhibited responses; multiple signs of extreme stress, self-preoccupied behaviors; increased care soliciting or care rejecting behavioral patterns; resistance to being returned to the kennel; snapping at the leash or while being leashed; food bowl guarding; suspiciousness, restlessness, and excessive vocalizations; trembling; digestive, skin and other health problems; engaging in behaviors such as upsetting food or water bowls; appearing overly active or inhibited; and sometimes becoming hyper-aggressive. Neurotic dogs are more likely to remain too long in shelters and risk being killed. The main contributing factors which cause the development of this disorder in shelter dogs are intense restraint and confinement; inability to express normal behavior; frustration; inappropriate feeding protocols; shelter crowding; inescapable aversive stimuli; hunger; unresolvable motivational conflicts; irregular schedules; lack of basic affection; repeated encounters with unfamiliar people and animals which do not engage in successful greetings. All this upsets their metabolic and psychological homeostasis and blocks their return to normal behavioral expression.”
Unfortunately, even good owners can unintentionally impose varying degrees of entrapment and sensory deprivation and overstimulation to their dogs. In the home and in public, there are additional factors because of the increased opportunities for a dog to escape; innumerable types of interactions with familiar and strange people and other animals; risks associated with objects inside and outside the home; long periods of loneliness; risky structural elements of homes, which weren’t designed with pets in mind, and be injurious or potential targets for destruction; and scary territorial shocks with little social support.
WHAT IS THE GOAL?
The goal of any EE program should be to enhance a dog’s welfare. “Animal welfare” is a broad, often subjectively measured term. What one person might consider good animal welfare, another might consider excellent or horrible. In general, I think good people know what this means for their dog: what they are doing is making their dog happy, safe, well, fit, living harmoniously with the people and animals in the home; all resulting in a long life. A good EE program should recognize what a dog can sense, emotionally feel, anticipate, or figure out. A reasonable conclusion is that whatever EE programmatic elements chosen should not be combined with triggers of innate or learned clues that predict potential danger. For example, if someone does scary stupid things with a dog, then EE isn’t going to make that better.
There are many factors which can be productively manipulated to improve animal welfare. Functional Factors are generally grouped as Cognitive, Habitat, Motor, Sensory, and Social.
The most important aspect of a good EE program is the kind of relationship the dog has with the owner. The owner must be responsive to the dog’s needs, available, interactive, playful, kind, instructive, and safe. I have been teaching dog owners this for my entire career, and there are always areas that need improvement. Dogs that don’t feel a safe bond with their owners will be too inhibited to fully engage in any EE program. The second important aspect of a good EE program makes the best use of the home where the dog will live. Dogs, like many mammals, develop an attachment to their home. If the home turf is acceptably designed and conveys emotional safety, the dog will have an easier time living there. With those established attachments, the rest of an EE program will flourish.
Dogs are intelligent animals which suffer, physically and mentally, if they have nothing to do for a long period of time. A well-known, and cautionary, study of caged, isolated rats showed a measurable decrease in brain volume.
There are many good articles on things you can do with your dog to enrich their lives, at home and in public. You can improve their social lives by the quality of people and animals you let your dog meet on a regular basis. You can stimulate their minds with memory games, novelty, agility games, puzzles, interesting training programs, and places to visit. You can give them chances for exercise, physical challenges to overcome (think agility such as ladders, stairs, tunnels, swimming). And you can stimulate their senses of smell, sight, touch, hearing, and taste. There are all kinds of creative and safe ways to do EE. I could turn this into a very long article, or even a book, on all the fun things you can and should do with a dog. For now, I recommend researching EE online and see the options and good ideas others are doing.
The science and ethics of EE have been well publicized for over 30 years, however professionals working at many, if not most, municipal animal shelters know nothing of, or put in token efforts, to use EE for the benefit of the pets in their legally mandated care. What they do, and the dogs they traumatize and eventually kill, are the victims of their passive indifference. Since the beginning of my career, I have publicly spoken out for reasonable reforms. I’m not the only voice out there, either. But nothing changes, and if changes are made, they are typically only temporary displays to gain positive PR.
No shelter can do a reasonable modernization without factoring in EE as a central theme of every monstrous building they construct, every transport vehicle they buy, every procedure they impose, and every adoption message they promulgate. Unfortunately, EE is considered a hassle, a waste of resources, the basis for a complaint to be censored, and a competing cost against hiring more bureaucrats. The dogs of our communities deserve better. Dogs deserve more access to more places to live and green spaces to explore. Why not open more opportunities for hiking, walking, running, visiting, and exploring? Why aren’t more programs made available for people who are shut in, because of age or disability or lack of transportation? Why aren’t the municipal shelters advocating for that, as well? Better access to fun activities increases the value of owning, rather than relinquishing, a pet. Furthermore, EE should be a standard messaging tool for teaching owners how to have a more satisfying, long-term relationship with their dogs. Good EE prevents behavior problems, and folds directly into proper early and ongoing socialization necessities. Too many dogs are relinquished because of behavioral problems which don’t need an expensive training program. These dogs need a quality-of-life improvement, a way to increase their behavioral diversity, to allow them to be happy dogs. What is the consistency, investment in, status, and quality of EE at your local municipal shelter? Is the veterinary staff involved in the planning, safety, and behavioral improvement assessment of the EE at your local shelter, and how is that program monitored? What measures are in place to assess the outcomes and what feedback mechanisms are in place to determine if the EE goals are being met consistently and humanely? Is the dog’s EE history included in the case file of each dog? I’ve seen bored and stressed shelter dogs, seeking some kind of interaction and comfort, who were put on the “euthanasia list” because they flipped their food bowls over in their cages. Is that the humane answer? And just putting a peanut butter stuffed Kong in a cage isn’t good EE, it is a PR stunt in most cases.
Dog owners don’t know as much about EE as they should. As professionals, we need to preach it as much as we do messages about preventing abuse, unwanted reproduction, animal escapes, aggression, diseases, and injuries. Many dogs are socially disconnected from society, and it is no wonder so many dogs are killed by shelters. Animal welfare groups should budget more to get the EE message out there and give people ideas and options to promote better animal welfare. People who do happy EE with their dogs are more likely to have a positive emotional attachment to their dogs, to spend the necessary time and money, and to advocate for better access for dogs to public venues, and accepting neighborhoods and apartments, which will make dogs more sociable and easier to live with.
Dogs are a wonder, a miracle, and a joy, and it can be frustrating for owners to not know how to make their dogs happy. Daily efforts at EE provide many answers on what to do.