IS A DOG RIGHT FOR ME? Examining a dog’s needs BEFORE making that decision
Imagine a life with no contact with your family, friends or colleagues for 12 hours a day – not just personal contact, but no social media, telephone calls, email or instant messaging. Imagine being on your own for 10-12 hours at a time in your house with no TV, no books to read, no internet, no games and no access to food. What kind of emotions would you experience? Boredom, loneliness, frustration, depression? How would you try and relieve those emotions? Would you find a comfy place to sleep? Would you sit and stare out the window? Would you pace up and down? Would you stand in the garden and yell to the neighbours, hoping for somebody to talk to? Would you develop some kind of nervous habit, like biting your nails?
Then imagine that as it gets dark, your family comes home. They walk in the door and you rush to greet them and express your joy and relief at their return. However, they don’t seem very happy to see you and in fact are quite annoyed by your enthusiasm. Within 5 minutes you are asked to wait outside or in a small room and are left to sit and stare in the window or listen at the door while they happily chat about their day, eat supper and watch TV. If you are lucky, they may come and see you for a few minutes, but then they are gone again, its bedtime and you will only see them for 5 minutes when they serve you breakfast in the morning before you are on your own once again.
Sounds absolutely awful, doesn’t it? Yet this is exactly the life which so many people force on their dogs. Dogs, like all mammals, are emotional beings. They experience anxiety, fear and terror, depression and frustration, pleasure, elation and relief. They are not appliances that you can ‘switch off” when you don’t have time for them. They are social animals that need social contact.
Regularly we are asked for ideas to help dogs cope in the absence of their owners – the most common reason is because dogs are barking or being disruptive in some other way when they are left alone. The first thing we always ascertain is whether this is a case of true separation related distress or a dog that is simply bored and unfulfilled. Many dogs that experience separation related distress are not left alone very often or for very long at all. The owner leaving for 5 minutes is enough to send them into a state of panic or depression. This is a horrible problem for owners and dogs, but it is something which can be alleviated and resolved with behaviour modification and in serious cases, medication. The far more common scenario is the dog that is left 10-12 hours a day with zero stimulation and is just bored out of his mind!
I am not sure when people started to think it acceptable to get dogs and leave them alone for such long hours on a daily basis. The fact is that it is simply NOT acceptable. No amount of medication or training is going to “fix” a bored, unfulfilled dog. What is more, people who work these hours seldom have time for walks, training, play or interaction with the dog when they are home, so the dog essentially has no life. Even providing occupational toys like Kongs, scatter feeding or a sand-pit for the dog to dig in is unlikely to alleviate that boredom for more than 20-30 minutes. That’s a very small percentage of 12 hours! What is the dog supposed to do the rest of the time?
To try and explain why this kind of life for a dog simply “sucks” (for lack of a better term!), an “hedonic budget” is useful. Hedonia is a state of pleasure or happiness, so a hedonic budget is a chart which reflects daily activities that contribute to a sense of wellbeing. The chart divides up the dog’s day according to the time spent on various activities. We can use two of these to show a comparison of the daily chart for a bored and lonely dog and a fulfilled happy dog. Obviously, different breeds or types of dogs will spend more time on various activities depending on what is particularly rewarding for them (what we bred them to do), but you can get a general idea from the charts below:
While we can try and increase some of the activities that are so limited in the second chart, the fact is that when people are gone 12 hours a day they will never be able to provide enough stimulation in their absence to create a healthy situation – unless they are willing to employ a full-time carer and hire a dog walker. This kind of situation will result in an unhappy dog and it is totally selfish and unfair to expect a dog to live this way.
We often have enquiries for training for teenage dogs (the age where behaviour problems start becoming a bit more obvious) where the request is for training sessions to be scheduled after 7pm or on Sundays. People indicate that their only availability is at these times as they are at work the rest of the time. I always want to ask, “So where’s your dog all this time? When do you spend time with your dog? When do you take your dog out? When last did your dog actually get a walk or any quality time with you?” Spending one hour a week in a training class is not going to solve the underlying problem for a neglected dog (I know that sounds rough, but it is in fact emotional, behavioural and social neglect). We do not have magic wands – if you are not in a position to meet your dog’s needs we cannot help you. Please don’t put a dog in this situation.
One last word on this: Dogs are very unique animals in that they have evolved to have a strong affinity and attachment to humans, even more so than their own kind. Most dogs will choose to be around the humans in the family over the other dogs in the family. For this reason, getting another dog often will NOT solve the problem. You will likely just end up with two very bored and lonely dogs.