Dogs in Gilded Cages: Surviving, but Not Thriving

In addition to food, water, and shelter dogs need lots of diverse enrichment.

Posted Mar 12, 2020

This guest essay written by Boulder, Colorado force-free certified dog trainer Mary Angilly nicely follows on the heels of a recent interview with Dr. Zazie Todd about her book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.

When you think of cruelty to dogs, what comes to mind? Dogfighting? Hoarding? Do you think of the millions of dogs languishing in shelters, many of whom will be euthanized? I do. But what about the millions of dogs in loving homes, with access to food, water, shelter, and regular veterinary care, but who are otherwise ignored and emotionally neglected? 

It is estimated that more than 60 million households in the United States and about 12 million households in the UK have a dog. Although many households consider dogs a part of the family, dogs are still deemed property under the law, which disparages them as having no inherent or intrinsic value. And as property owners, it’s our prerogative to value them or not.

Recently, Dogs Trust released the results of a survey of 2,000 dog guardians in the UK and found that the top two questions guardians would ask their dogs if they could talk were, “Are you happy” (62 percent) and “How could I make your life happier” (48 percent)? This is a question dog guardians commonly ask me during training/teaching sessions and I love it when I hear it. However, many are misled, or uninformed about how to make this happen and dogs suffer as a result.

As a trainer, I repeatedly see dogs in households who are excessively isolated and under-stimulated. This has been noted in numerous surveys across the world, and many of the dogs I see for the first time are home alone for upwards of ten to twelve hours (sometimes in a crate), rarely get walked, and have little to no access to the outside world or any other sort of variety. Think about how a human might fare in this sort of scenario; it’s not a reach to say that he or she would not do well.

Do these dogs have adequate food, water, and shelter? Yes. Do they see a veterinarian regularly? Yes. Do their guardians love them and mean well? Yes. But this is not enough.

So what can we do to help make our dogs happier and enhance their psychological and physical well-being?

Let’s start by taking a look at the Five Freedoms that outline aspects of animal welfare under human control. Originally created to address the humane treatment of farm animals in the UK, the Five Freedoms are now widely accepted by many professional groups, including veterinarians. These Freedoms are as follows:

  • Freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition.
  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease.
  • Freedom to express normal behavior.
  • Freedom from fear and distress.

As Marc Bekoff said in a recent book discussion about Unleashing Your Dog, “This is some pretty low-hanging fruit.” Indeed, it is. No one can argue against these freedoms for companion animals and while it’s apparent that we should allow dogs to express normal behavior and avoid fear and distress, these two freedoms are commonly ignored in the average household.

I speak on behalf of many colleagues when I write this: training methodologies aside, if I could relay a request to every dog guardian, it would be that they learn how to read and respect dog body language, embrace giving up some control, and really seek to recognize their dogs’ need to be a dog.

Body language

“Is my dog happy?” Our dogs are actually telling us all the time, but we aren’t always listening. (See “Is My Dog Happy? How Dogs’ Body Language Is a Guide.”) If there is a greater effort among dog guardians to learn how to read their dog’s body language, we’ll be better able to see when our dogs are not only happy but also distressed or worried.

It’s also worth mentioning that if a good deal more time was spent learning about and respecting the signs of a dog’s fear or stress, we would see far fewer numbers of bites to humans and other animals. While there are exceptions to this, dogs generally never bite “out of nowhere" and often give us ample opportunity to avoid conflict. Learn more about how to “speak dog” here.

Giving up control (less is more)

The human-dog relationship is already unbalanced, and dogs have little to no say in most aspects of their lives. We dictate where they live, what they eat, when they can relieve themselves, and even whether or not they can keep their sex organs. We also go to great lengths to control how they act and consider many of their normal behaviors unacceptable.

No one obeys the rules 100 percent of the time and dogs are no exceptions (though many of the rules we’ve established for them in the human environment are unreasonable anyway). If we can learn to give up some control and let our dogs act like dogs and have their own agency and choices whenever possible, the benefits to their mental and emotional health, and ours, would be immense.

Let walks be for your dog and allow them to sniff and take their time. When you’re at the dog park or on a hike, reel in the reprimands and constant “commands” (we like to call them “cues” in the force-free dog trainer world) and let them run free. If your dog likes to play, let them play and zoom around as much as they like. And when your dog jumps on the counter and eats a loaf of bread you left unattended, there’s no need to get offended, after all, it’s not all about you. Take it in stride (and perhaps keep your dog out of the kitchen when you aren’t there).

Enrichment and emotional well-being

Some people say, “A tired dog is a good dog.” I really dislike this phrase because I think all dogs are good dogs, but what I want to focus on here is that many dogs, often in affluent and well-meaning households, find themselves otherwise alone for the majority of the day with absolutely nothing to do and little to no interaction with others. From here, we often see other consequences that arise, such as increased boredom, stress, and anxiety that are often demonstrated in “behavior problems.” This is a huge disservice to our dog companions and a form of cruelty.

As a basic need, we should look at what we can do to enrich our dogs’ lives and yes, help tire them out.

A great place to start is by ditching the food bowl. It really requires very little effort on the human side of things to get started with teaching our dogs to work for their food. This isn’t all-inclusive and efforts must be made to allow our dogs to act like dogs via play, sniffing, chasing, and chewing to name but a few. If their exercise and mental stimulation needs are met, we often see some of these “behavior problems” drastically decrease in frequency and, therefore, have not only happier dogs but people, too.

In Unleashing Your Dog Drs. Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce expand the Five Freedoms into Ten Freedoms and provide us with a more comprehensive look at making our dogs and ourselves happier. They also stress that taking a dog into your home and heart is a huge decision and that's it perfectly okay to say something like, "No, I'm not ready to add a dog to my life. While I really would like to bring a dog home, my lifestyle doesn't really make it possible to give them the best life possible." Saying "No" is okay, because dog's aren't gambling chips. Even the most well-cared-for dogs—those who are doted upon, have soft beds and tasty nutritional food, and get good veterinary care—may experience deprivations of which their owner is largely unaware.

Bekoff and Pierce also look at training as a form of enrichment and stress the importance of finding a force-free certified dog trainer if your dog needs some teaching and guidance. In the United States, it's a sad fact that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer.

Where to from here? 

As humans, we’re no strangers to the objectification and exploitation of animals for our own use in different capacities. Though many of us who share our homes with dogs consider them to be part of the family, in a way our “ownership” of them is still a form of exploitation. However, it doesn’t have to be. If we make these small efforts for our dogs in the short time that we have them, there’s no reason to feel regret when it’s their time to pass, as we’ve done all we can to make their lives happier, richer, and fuller. 

Remember, compassion begets compassion and if we can start with our companion animals at home, perhaps this can expand to other species, including ourselves. Dogs can be a "gateway species" for bridging the empathy gap.

I look forward to further discussions on how you can give your dog the best life possible—how you can enhance their psychological and physical well-being—by paying careful attention to research, citizen science, the tremendous responsibility you've assumed when you decide to give a dog a home, and a dose of common sense.

References

Angilly, Mary. Dog Training Offers Valuable Lessons in Humane Education.

_____ and Marc Bekoff. Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?

Bekoff, Marc. Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Psychology Today, March 10, 2020. (An interview with with Dr. Zazie Todd, author of a wonderful book about dogs.)

_____. Are You Really Sure You Want to Share Your Life With a Dog?

_____. Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them.

_____. Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us. (A video called "Downward Dog" and an essay about stress show anxiety abounds.)

_____. For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don’t Balance Scolds and Praise. [This essay includes a dog's wish list for what they want and need from their human(s).]

_____. Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog.

_____. How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World. (Researchers and trainers weigh in on how to give dogs the best lives possible.)

_____. Dogs, Captivity, and Freedom: Unleash Them Whenever You Can.

_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018. 

_____. Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It. (Dog training is an unregulated industry although dogs need to be licensed.)

_____. Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon

_____. "I'm a Mess About My Dogs and Coronavirus—How Will They Do?"

Pierce, Jessica. Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016. 

Note 1) Marc was recently told the following horror story. A friend of his who had a relatively minor problem with her dog found a local trainer on the web and they made an appointment for the trainer to come to see the dog. When the trainer arrived, she announced that she used e-collars and wanted to take the dog to her home for a few hours to observe her. Thankfully, Marc's friend said "no!" The trainer didn't pay any attention to where the problem was actually taking place, showed no interest in the dog-human relationship in which the problem was occurring, and this is a good example of someone who shouldn't be training any dog.