Do dogs get depressed?
Depending on your experience and point of view, this might seem like a silly question, but it is one worth considering, as depression in dogs is often overlooked. We are seldom called in to help clients, because they are worried that their dogs are depressed, yet we often see depressed dogs in people’s homes that no one is noticing – the reality is that depressed dogs don’t cause problems, because depressed dogs don’t do much of anything – sadly, depressed dogs are often just viewed as “well-behaved”.
People will contact us when a dog is digging, chewing, pulling on the lead, barking, or biting. People do not ask for help when the dog is sleeping a lot and not causing anyone any trouble. They don’t contact us when their dogs show no interest in playing and make no demands on anyone. The sad reality is, that the depressed dog is emotionally worse off than the dog that is barking, biting, chewing or digging. The dog that is digging, chewing, barking or biting is still trying to do something to change the way that they feel – they are using chewing, digging, barking or biting to alleviate a situation that they are uncomfortable in. If they are bored and frustrated, digging and chewing will help to keep them occupied and alleviate boredom. If they are anxious or afraid, barking and biting is likely to remove the source of their fear. Most of the time, problem behaviours in dogs are coping strategies that dogs use to deal with situations that create emotional upset for them – they are an indication that the dog’s brain is till trying to find a way out of the situation and restore emotional equilibrium.
So, what leads to a dog becoming depressed? Well, when a dog tries to do something to change the way that a situation is making them feel, but nothing that they do works, the dog at some point is likely to give up. If life is scary or there are lots of things that create anxiety for a dog and all attempts to communicate this anxiety or to use a survival strategy (fight, flight, appeasement) to get away from the source of anxiety fails, then the dog is likely to just give up and withdraw. Similarly, if a dog’s needs are not met (needs for social contact, exploring, rehearsing innate behaviours etc.), and the dog cannot find any safe way to meet these needs in the environment he is living in, the dog will become depressed.
It is no surprise that we see depression in dogs in two main situations:
1. Rescued dogs with a history of abuse 2. Dogs in homes where the “training” methods used are punishment-based
Dogs that have been abused tend to learn that they have absolutely no control over their environment. Nothing that they do can make the abuse stop – everything that they try is met with further punishment. Dogs in homes or training classes where punishment is the preferred training method are in very much the same boat. While the owner or trainer may feel that the punishment is only a consequence of behaviour and the dog can learn to avoid the punishment, most punishment is delivered in so haphazard a manner that the dog does not understand how to control it and gives up trying anything at all. Robot dogs that are too scared to actively engage in the training process and always simply wait for cues are usually exhibiting signs of depression. Furthermore, when a dog’s needs are not being met in a home and every attempt the dog makes to meet those needs himself (chewing, digging etc) is punished, the dog is really forced into a state of depression to avoid further trauma.
How can we prevent depression in dogs? Firstly, we need to meet their needs. Dogs do not just need food and water – they need social contact, mental enrichment, physical exercise and the opportunity to rehearse species (and type) specific behaviour patterns in order to feel fulfilled. Dogs also need to feel a sense of control over their lives. Control is HUGE – when you have no control, you will give up. Dogs should have choices in what to sniff, who to say hello to, when to be handled (obviously not referring to emergency medical situations), what games to play and they should be encouraged to take an active role in their training – choosing to engage rather than being forced to obey. Lastly, we need stop punishing our dogs for being dogs. We need to realise the impact that punishment has on dogs - how it inhibits behaviour and creates fear and anxiety. We need to say no to punishment as a training method and no to trainers, groomers, walkers and anyone in the dog industry who is still so far behind the times that they don’t know any better.