Trying to determine if your dog is experiencing anger, love, or any other “human” identifiable emotion (including depression) is difficult. To date, no one has been able to provide convincing scientific evidence that we can distinguish one emotion from another by what our brains or hormones do. We obviously feel differently when we’re in a loving versus an angry mood; however, what our brain does to influence us to feel those very different emotions is less clear.
Nonetheless, we believe that our pets ‘love us’, they appear to showcase emotions that we recognise in our own species, and they certainly look like they’re feeling guilty after doing something wrong. But do they know right from wrong, and when they do the wrong thing, do they really feel guilty or is this not just a trick of the human mind to make us see what we already know and understand, asks Ryan O'Meara.
What most animal behaviour experts are happy to agree on is that dogs can and do suffer with anxiety in certain circumstances and anxiety can manifest in many ways and can affect dogs differently.
Nobody likes to see their dog unhappy, upset or showing signs that appear to resemble depression.
Let's try something, shall we?
Let's just substitute the word depression for boredom. Now we're getting somewhere.
Boredom is a mood killer. For a dog to be bored they will often try to stimulate their mind in a way that can manifest in destructive or otherwise negative behaviour.
Dogs are social creatures. As puppies it is natural for them to get dependent and attached to their mother and littermates. This type of attachment is transferred on to you, his owner, when the puppy enters your life. This attachment results in distress whenever the dog is left alone in the house, which is the most common cause of separation anxiety.
So for many dogs, simply being separated from us can cause them to display signs of anxiety or depression (known as separation anxiety) or, let's substitute that word again, boredom.
For dogs who suddenly show a change in mood, it’s always wise to have a vet perform tests. Dogs who very quickly change in their demeanor or temperament could have something physically wrong with them.
Let's establish one key thing.
Dogs, all dogs, require a degree of mental and physical stimulation. Each dog has their own needs in terms of the levels of stimulation they specifically require but all dogs need some.
Some dogs can become so bored / anxious that they resort to harming themselves. This is usually manifested through chewing of feet or even gnawing on their own legs.
It’s important to intervene if your dog is chewing their own feet as they can cause themselves significant physical damage, which can lead to infection, but more pertinently a dog chewing their own paws is demonstrating an undesirable behavioural pattern, the underlying cause of which we should be committed to solving.
Canine compulsive disorder is extremely rare. It is thought that less than 3% of all dogs have it, but you should seek the advice of a suitably qualified professional to find out if there are underlying problems causing your dog to chew their own feet. By far the most common cause that leads to dogs chewing their fee is boredom. It is a serious problem and requires owners to work on daily plans to ensure the dog is properly stimulated, both mentally and physically.
Stress is the body’s response to any physical or mental demand. The response prepares the body to either fight or flee. It increases blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and metabolism, and there is a marked increase in the blood supply to the arms and legs. It is a physiological, genetically predetermined reaction over which the individual, whether a dog or a person, has no control.
When your dog is stressed, his body becomes chemically unbalanced. To deal with this imbalance, the body releases chemicals into the bloodstream in an attempt to rebalance itself. The reserve of these chemicals is limited. You can dip into it only so many times before it runs dry and the body loses its ability to rebalance. Prolonged periods of imbalance result in neurotic behaviour and the inability to function.
Stress is characterised as “positive” (manifesting itself in increased activity) and “negative” (manifesting itself in decreased activity).
Picture yourself returning home after a hard day at work. You are welcomed by a mess on your new, white rug. What is your response? Do you explode, scream at your dog, your children and then storm through the house slamming doors? Or, do you look at the mess in horror, shake your head in resignation, feel drained of energy, ignore the dog and the children and then go to your room? In the first example, your body was energized by the chemicals released into the bloodstream. In the second example, your body was debilitated.
Dogs react in a similar manner, and stress triggers either the fight or flight response. Positive stress manifests itself in hyperactivity, such as running around, bouncing up and down or jumping on you, whining, barking, mouthing, getting in front of you or anticipating commands. You may think your dog is just being silly and tiresome, but for the dog, those are coping behaviours. Negative stress manifests itself by lethargy, such as freezing, slinking behind you, running away or responding slowly to a command. In new situations, he seems tired and wants to lie down, or sluggish and disinterested. These are not signs of relaxation, but are the coping behaviours for negative stress.
How To Ensure Your Dog is Never Bored
Dog’s don’t ask a lot of us; all they really want is food, shelter and a bit of company. Their demands don’t stretch to “being understood” or “feeling valued” but they do have certain basic requirements that ensure their mental health is in tact and Lana Rose explores the reasons behind them.
Trauma and mistreatment can really imbalance a dog’s capacity to function usefully and properly. Anxiety, edginess and general hyperactivity are strongly associated with dogs that have been mistreated. But thankfully this is relatively rare.
The most common blight on a dog’s mental health is boredom.
Dogs spend a considerable portion of there time inactive, however as an opportunist, the dog is adapted to seeking a wide variety of rewarding situations in unpredictable locations. The dog is therefore much more likely to be interested in novel items and circumstances. In contrast, a predictable and limiting environment may make these non-active periods boring and as such we see an overall decrease in interaction within the environment. The dog becomes socially and emotionally lethargic.
The dog is famed as being a very adaptable animal and a healthy adult can cope with a range of conditions, particularly if it has access to areas with different environmental surroundings.
Animals have emotionally complex lives and need appropriate environments and stimulation.
Good housing, giving the dog ‘a place of their own in the home’, affords them the opportunity to exercise a degree of choice, to manipulate or chew safe objects, to interact with humans, to choose not to interact, to play, to rest, all of which satisfies their behavioural needs.
Providing a positive, rewarding and stimulating environment based on trust and affection teaches our pets to stay enthusiastic and interested.
The purpose of environmental enrichment is to increase the overall welfare of the dog by allowing them to burn off calories in a safe and natural way, which in turn allows them to behave more naturally in a restricted environment.
The dog learns to cope with unexpected changes in the environment, and is less likely to be stressed by handling, restraint or changes in environment. A decrease in emotion based behaviour can lead to a decrease in physiological and psychological stress.
Things Dogs Like To Work For
Food, water, foraging, sniffing / scenting, attention, grooming, coolness (when body temperature is high), and warmth (when the body temperature is low). These are all known as primary reinforcers.
As these examples suggest, primary reinforcers often relate to biological processes. Some primary reinforcers are not immediately obvious; for instance if you were a dog restrained in your home/kennel and cannot move about or get out, the chance of freedom can be very reinforcing and you would strive to achieve it more than a dog who had open access to fields for most of their day.
Photo by Sam Hames
Why Is It Important To Know What Your Dog Likes To Work For?
Prevention is better than cure. Knowing what a dog likes and will work for is an important factor in having a stimulated dog; especially if the animal spends most of the time looking at four walls and food is provided independent of its behaviour.
In the wild, dogs are hunter-scavengers; it is natural for them to spend a large amount of their daily energy looking for food. Pet dog’s needs are similar and in contrast certain elements of our own lifestyle which have been forced upon the dog for our convenience could in fact lead to a degree of mental lethargy in the animal – feeding a dog once a day is a prime example.
If you’ve ever been on a long haul flight or even a medium distance air passage, can you recall how excited you were about the in flight meal?
You spend the first hour getting comfortable and then the rest of the journey you’re reliant on the stewards breaking up the monotony of the trip by bringing you food, drinks, snacks or putting on a film. Your environment, your stimulation is in THEIR hands and there’s not much you can do about it.
You get to a point where you are so looking forward to the dried out cheese sandwiches brought by the flight crew you could almost describe it as a genuinely stimulating event in an otherwise boring passage of your life. You anticipate, you imagine what the food’s going to taste like, you wonder what might be accompanying it and then it finally arrives, what a build up…..and then, in a few short moments, all gone. Now you’re back to waiting and anticipating again and you are lulled back into the monotony of the flight.
Welcome To Your Dog's World!
Imagine waiting all day, anticipating those fantastic few moments when your food is being prepared, you know it’s coming, you can smell it, this is your meal and NO mistaking, oh this is truly exciting…then, in seconds, it’s all over. Gone. Bored again. What can I do to shake this feeling of tediousness? I know, I’m going to pull all the washing off the line outside. That looks like fun.
Feeding your dog periodically through the day, without the need to increase their overall volume of food can give them a great deal of mental stimulation. They’ll love it!
When undesirable behaviours such as, mischief, destruction, anxiety or even aggression manifest themselves, boredom born of a monotonous life can often be traced as the route cause.
Introverted behaviour such as sucking, licking and biting oneself on the paws, wrists and flank areas can be another expression of the dog’s boredom. Whether the dog is bored or not, anxious or not, behavioural enrichment is required to keep the dog happy and healthy and, in nearly all cases, your dog’s environment and therefore behavioural enrichment is controlled almost exclusively by you.
Photo by avrene
Incorporating different activities each day can help to beat your dog’s boredom and make life more interesting. Here are some quick boredom beating tips you'll dog will love:
Toys – Provide your dog with interesting toys to play with. Keep a variety that appeal to your dog and switch them each day. Your dog will get bored of the same old toy, but alternating them will keep them exciting and new. Food dispensing toys activity balls and puzzle games can be stuffed with favourite treats, providing your dog with great mental stimulation as he tries to work out how to get the food. Bones can be used as entertainment, but some types will need supervision as they may splinter, get stuck in the dog’s throat or give stomach irritation. Speak to your vet to find out which types of bones are best for your dog to be left alone with.
Games – Games not only beat the boredom, but build a strong bond between owner and dog. Spend a few minutes every day playing games with your dog; keep them varied so they stay exciting. Try experimenting with different games that bring out your dog’s natural abilities. Have a go at hiding toys and treats around your garden or house and encourage your dog to use his senses to find them. Dogs are natural foragers and will enjoy searching for things.
Training – Training your dog gives the brain a good work out. Try to spend a few minutes on training every day and look at teaching new commands. Learning new commands will keep things fresh and fun.
Dog classes and sports – Dog classes combine physical and mental activity. If you want something fast paced and energetic try Cani-X, agility, working trials or flyball. If you are interested in slower paced activities, you might like to try obedience classes, the Good Citizen Dog Scheme, Pets As Therapy, clicker training or heelwork to music. Check directories to find out what activities are going on in your local area.
Doggie daycare –Your dog will be looked after in a safe environment where he will get lots of attention and playtime, as well as the chance to socialise with other dogs. It can be costly if you take your dog every day, but once a week is a nice alternative and provides variety in your dog’s life.
Dog walker – Dog walkers come to collect your dog and take him out on a walk for you. It’s a cheaper option than doggie daycare and ensures someone can let your dog out and gives your dog the attention and interaction he needs while you're out or at work.
Walkies – Walking your dog is a great way to beat the boredom and get some exercise and fresh air. Try to take your dog out on walks in different areas to keep them fun and exciting. If you go jogging or cycling, why not take your dog along too.
Learn as much as you can about the dog you own. Whether you own a Pedigree Poodle or a rescued ‘bits n pieces’ dog. Learn what you can about the breed, learn what you can about parents (if possible), learn what you can about what your dog was bred for. Is it a dog that wants to run? A dog that would thrive being allowed to 'hunt' and sniff out rewards? Is it a dog that loves to fetch?
Know your dog's individual traits and define the things they love to do the most. For one dog, a 10-mile run would be heaven. For another, they'd get most joy from being able to play hide and seek for 10 minutes. Know your dog.
Bonus Tips to Keep Your Dog From Being Bored:
Welcome to Hide and Seek – K9Style.
1. Walk across a grassy area (preferably an enclosed garden), pressing firmly with your shoes or boots to make imprints on the ground.
2. Place the toy or interactive treat dispensing toy with some food somewhere discreet, but not impossible to locate.
3. Collect the dog.
4. Just let the dog off the lead and encourage them to ‘follow your trail’ to find the reward.
Another tracking game to play is called “Hansel & Gretall”
1. You walk to a point (ten yards), drop the dog’s favourite toy in the grass and slightly cover it over with grass.
2. As you walk back drop small amounts of food where you are walking.
3. Drop some food just in front of your dog and release him to find the food on the track with his nose.
5 When he gets to the end of the track, he gets the surprise of his toy.
6. Scattering food around the exercise area and letting the dog find it is another great way to allow him to use his nose.
Here's another game to try - it's called 'dig for victory'.
If your garden has a digging area then this is the game for you, in a space of around three square feet add some sand to the soil to make digging easier. Then, bury titbits, toys, bones and chews for him to find. Make sure you have a towel handy afterwards to clean their feet and avoid muddy paws throughout the home!
Photo by Linny East of Huggy at the beach
Don’t Forget Physical Stimulation
Regular grooming each day not only keeps the dog in tip top physical condition, it also promotes mutual trust and affection between pet and owner. Make grooming a fun, regular activity and use the time to check the dog for lumps, bumps of abrasions. Loving your life with dogs means you want to spend as long together as possible, regular grooming and knowing your dog's body could save their life where cancerous lumps are concerned.
Remember breed differences should be kept in mind when considering enrichment options. Your average Collie will enjoy robust, motion based games. Hounds will love the scent activities and Labradors you JUST KNOW will love anything where food is the ultimate reward!
Remedy undesirable behaviours by rewarding desirable behaviours. It’s a very, very simple rule to live by and experts agree that positive reinforcement training will provide the most superior and long lasting results.
The more your pet is actively engaged in positive play during sessions or training exercises, the less time he or she has to develop an undesirable behaviour as a result of simply being bored.
Remember the long haul flight analogy. Think about this in terms of your dog's day. Don't make their average day a chore to get through. Keep life interesting and your dog will thank you for it forever!
Have you found a game your dog loves? Share it with us here – we'd love to hear from you!