This is a bit of a sensitive subject, but one that there is an increasing need for rational discussion on. How many dogs should a person be allowed to keep? There are probably many different views on this, as different people might have had different experiences of multi-dog households and different perceptions about what constitutes quality of life for a dog. I would think that pretty much everyone likely to read this post would agree that “hoarding” as it occasionally appears in the news, is wrong. Hoarding cases that cause a public outcry and result in the authorities getting involved, consist of anything from dozens to hundreds of animals being kept in conditions where their physical needs are not being met: they may have untreated medical conditions, will be neglected and malnourished and are usually living in cages or cramped conditions with no hygiene or cleaning. The dog’s actual physical health is compromised.
However, as a behaviourist, it is my job to also be keenly aware of not only an animal’s physical health, but also their emotional health. With regards to emotional health, one has to consider the animal’s general stress levels, opportunities to engage in natural behaviours and how well the animal’s behavioural and emotional needs are met. For this reason, I don’t think the label “hoarding” should be limited to situations where only physical needs are lacking. Quality of life is not just having food in a bowl, veterinary care and shelter, it is far more than that – quality of life depends on how an animal feels. I am sure that you would agree that having a roof over your head, the absence of physical pain and 3 meals a day, does not equate to happiness and fulfilment. You could have all those things, but a strained family relationship, a stressful job (or no job!), disruptive neighbours, lack of any close relationships or an absence of any kind of restorative recreational activities could result in you being utterly miserable.
The same applies to dogs. Dogs need more than just food in a bowl and shelter. For a dog to be content, they need the following:
1. HUMAN COMPANIONSHIP – note that this is FAR more important than canine companionship for most dogs. We have selectively bred dogs to bond with people. A close bond with human members of the family is far more important to MOST dogs than a bond with other dogs. Dogs don’t just need us around ignoring them all the time – they need quality time with us – time to play, to explore the outside world and to “work” together in fun training tasks or games.
2. OPPORTUNITY TO ENGAGE IN NATURAL DOG BEHAVIOURS – dogs are scavengers and they also have remnants of the predatory sequence in their behavioural repertoire. Sniffing, stalking, chasing, grabbing, digging and chewing are very important behaviours for dogs. Most dogs do not get the opportunity to engage in these behaviours in our lounges. This is where walks (where a dog can investigate new scents), play fetch, dig in molehills and get to be in the company of their humans while they do so, is incredibly important for dogs.
3. EMOTIONAL COPING SKILLS, SOCIAL SKILLS AND PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS, DEVELOPED THROUGH APPROPRIATE EXPOSURE TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD – dogs that seldom leave the home will become unsure how to cope in the outside world. While socialisation primarily takes place in the first 14 weeks of life, dogs need to continue to be exposed positively to the outside world on a regular basis in order to keep their skills sharp.
4. REST! – Dogs need down-time. They need a quiet place to rest at home WITHOUT being disturbed by people or dogs. Dogs needs about 14-17 hours of rest per 24 hour day. Not being able to settle, because they are always being disturbed, will result in high levels of stress for dogs.
5. LITTLE TO NO CONFLICT OVER RESOURCES – Dogs do not enjoy conflict (well, with the exception of types of dogs that were selected to be really good at it – which is another problem in itself for multi-dog households taking on those breeds). Feeling as if they constantly have to “compete” for food, toys, affection or attention, sleeping places and even just some personal space, raises stress levels and interferes with rest. Dogs that live with chronic stress become either depressed and shut down or they become reactive and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.
The reality is that the more dogs you have, the less easy it is to fulfil all the criteria in your home that will lead to your dog being emotionally healthy and content. Walking two dogs every day is a commitment, but it can be very enjoyable - I treasure my daily walks with my dogs, even in the rain! Walking 5 or more dogs, is not so easy. The reality is that one person is unlikely to be able to manage or “control” all the dogs effectively in all circumstances. Either the person becomes a menace to other dog walkers or they must find suitable places to walk where they won’t run into anyone else. But most often, they simply stop taking the dogs out. So there goes the opportunity to engage in so many natural behaviours that are fulfilling for dogs and there go the social skills and confidence in the outside world.
What about quality time with people? How much of this do dogs in large multi-dog households actually get? How many people continue to train or work with every dog in some way on an ongoing basis? How often do the dogs get focused and uninterrupted interaction or play with the humans that are so important to them?
What about rest? Well, when there are 10 dogs in a small suburban home, there’s usually not that much rest going on, unless the dog is too old and deaf to hear what everyone else is up to. There is also more than likely going to be some tension somewhere when it comes to resources – the more dogs there are in a limited space, the more aware they are going to be of how close everyone else is to their food or other valuable resources. If you go to the Woollies sale and find 100 people waiting outside for the doors to open, you are likely to experience a spike in cortisol and will probably be a lot more “grabby” when rifling through the sales racks than if you only found a couple of other customers in the store. On the other hand, some of us might just walk away and not even bother trying to find anything – we’d just go off feeling a bit depressed!
We do in fact have by-laws which limit the number of dogs that a person can keep. Suburban homes are limited to 3 dogs. Yet, these by-laws are completely ignored by numerous well-meaning dog owners and by many shelters - perhaps they should not be. There is a line of thought that it is better to rescue a dog and add it to an already full household than allow the dog to end up in a shelter or be euthanized. But one has to ask if “Life at any cost” is a life worth living? I know this sounds tremendously callous, but it comes from a place of consulting in households where people have rescued numerous dogs, but some of them are truly suffering, because they cannot cope in the environment they have been placed in. Sadly, it is only the reactive dogs that “act out” that we get called in to help. Those that given up and shut down, those that are living a quiet life of despair, no one notices.
For me personally, to have the kind of close working, recreational and “family” relationship that I have with my dogs, I know I should only have 2 or 3. At the same time I have colleagues who have 4 or 5, but in those cases their dogs are all also involved in some kind of work and at least two will be “retired” and enjoying quieter senior years, while the younger ones are kept busy and out of the older dogs’ “hair”. Other people may have different preferences and different reasons for the number of dogs that they choose. However, please remember when taking on another dog, that it is not just about what you want from being a dog owner that is important – it should be about whether you can meet that dog’s needs. Not just their physical needs. Not just being at home a lot. Can you meet their emotional needs? Will you able to take them out so they can enjoy the outside world and not live forever in your limited home environment? Do you have the time to build their social and emotional skills? Can you protect them from feeling stressed in your home? Do you have enough resources for every dog and are other people in your home willing and able to help with this? Do you have the means to make them truly happy, not just to keep them alive?
PHOTO: These dogs are all enjoying a lovely walk together – but they do not all live together, and their humans are all on the walk, each one looking after their own dogs and ensuring that they are comfortable and well-managed in public. While they enjoy these outings together, they would be unlikely to cope living with each other all the time – their personalities and interests are all varied, and they would probably get on each other’s nerves if they were forced to co-exist in a limited environment on an ongoing basis. Remember that dogs do not form tightly structured packs – they may have special “friendships” with one or two other dogs, but they generally form loose and transient associations with the broader community of dogs when living without human support. Forcing a large group of dogs to co-exist in a confined space is not natural at all.