A Changed Dog: Musings on the importance of enrichment in dogs

August 2013 052

My dog, Darwin, is one of the most laid back dogs I’ve ever known. With the exception of tracking (he is mostly beagle), he doesn’t generally get excited about anything.  That includes food, toys and people or other dogs.  He appears to like all of these things and will eat, play and greet others when given the opportunity, but he’s always very relaxed about the whole thing.

In fact, he’s so laid back, that I have sometimes wondered if something is wrong.  If maybe he was “depressed” or “sad”.  Terms, that as a behaviorist, I’m hesitant to apply to dogs, for fear of anthropomorphizing and creating a problem when there is none.  Plus, he seems healthy, and doesn’t appear anxious, so I’ve dismissed my concerns as over blown.  I am, after all, used to having herding dogs and working with a lot of high energy breeds, so I told myself that Darwin is probably just at the low end of the normal range of activity and enthusiasm.  However, I’ve started to question that assumption a little over the last several weeks.

In mid-August, I enrolled Darwin in an agility class at J.A.Z.Z. Agility in Greenfield Center.  I have recommended agility for my client’s dogs on multiple occasions.  Generally for dogs that are extremely active and need a “job”, or for dogs that lack confidence and could benefit from the confidence boost dogs often get from agility.  However, I didn’t have either of these in mind for Darwin.  My reasoning was very simple and basic.  I have dogs so that I can DO things with them.  I don’t know a lot about tracking and am not particularly motivated to learn it, at least at this time.  He also loves to be high and frequently jumps up to walk along rock walls and other features.  So, I simply figured it was something fun we could do together that we both enjoy.

Fall 2014 133

Since we started agility, however, I have noticed a change in Darwin.  It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there.  He’s gotten “perkier”.  He doesn’t necessarily have more energy, but he seems to have more enthusiasm for life.  Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should give you a little more background on agility for those who don’t know much about it.  The really good agility trainers and competitors focus a lot on things like “motivation” and “drive”.

Fall 2014 140

Motivation and drive are important for three reasons.  First, to get the dogs to complete the obstacles in the first place.  This is generally not very difficult.  Agility is all about positive training and uses a lot of food, praise and toys.  In addition, dogs tend to really enjoy agility.  Darwin, for example, adores the a-frame.  The a-frame is a big peaked wooden platform, like the roof on an a-frame house (google “agility a-frame” to see an image).  The dog runs up one side and down the other.  He loves heights, so I’m not surprised that he loves the a-frame.  In fact, I have to keep an eye on him, because anytime he gets close, he tends to want to run up and over it, whether I’ve asked him to or not.  And this brings us to the second reason motivation and drive are important to agility.

Dogs love agility.  But for those of us who want to compete, it’s important that we maintain control of our dogs on the course so that we can actually do well in the ring.  Maintaining control is important for safety reasons as well.  The key is to teach our dogs in a way that makes them really want to listen to the cues being given by their handler.  Teaching control in a way that takes the light and fire out of the dog, that somehow dampens their enthusiasm for the sport defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise.  Those of us who do agility do it because we love to do something challenging and exciting with our dogs and is equally enjoyable for both parties. Therefore, we have to find a way to motivate them to follow our direction on the course, without dampening their enthusiasm for agility in general.


Finally, motivation and drive is important because if you want to do really well in agility, you need to have speed as well as control.  For many, speed is less of an issue than control.  But for some of us (like Darwin and I), building drive and motivation to increase speed can be a challenge.  We have to find a way to increase our dog’s enthusiasm for the sport so that they will really power through the obstacles and may someday come up with the winning time.  Plus, it’s just that much better when they seem to be enjoying themselves to the fullest.

How does all of this relate to me wondering if my dog may have been depressed?  In humans, lack of motivation (apathy) is one of the primary symptoms of depression.  In fact, many therapists explore ways of increasing the patient’s motivation as part of the treatment for depression.  It’s possible, therefore, that lack of motivation in dogs similarly indicates some kind of depressed mood.  Further, if dogs are feeling depressed, finding some way to increase their motivation may help elevate their mood.

Worried - yorkie

I do not want to suggest that dogs experience depression in the same way that people do.  In fact, I am hesitant to even label it as “depression”.  Depressed mood is probably a more accurate descriptor.  In humans, other symptoms of depression include feelings of worthlessness or guilt as well as thoughts of suicide.  I want to be very clear – I do NOT think this is something dogs experience.  I don’t think they are capable of thinking about themselves in that way.  However, there are other aspects of depression that they may be able to experience.  For example, diminished interest or pleasure in activities and fatigue or listlessness.

It’s very difficult to determine to what extent dogs actually experience these feelings.  Some would debate whether or not dogs have any emotion at all, though I strongly fall into the “dogs experience emotion” camp.  Determining exactly which emotions they experience, however, is much more difficult.  It is obvious that dogs experience fear and this has been studied extensively in non-human animals.  Other emotions, however, have been largely ignored.  In fact, I was not able to find any studies that specifically examined depression in dogs.  In over 15 years of working professionally with dogs, I have never had a client contact me because there dog was depressed.  However, perhaps this is simply because dogs that may be feeling depressed mood, don’t tend to cause any problems.

We do know that dogs can experience something called learned helplessness, which has been consistently linked to depression.  In fact, learned helplessness was initially identified and labeled in dogs by Martin Seligman.  It occurs when an animal learns that no matter what they do, they cannot escape a bad situation. So, eventually they stop trying and just endure whatever aversive event they are experiencing.   This learned helplessness persists even if the situation changes and the animal is able to escape.  For example, if they are trapped in a box, they eventually give up trying to exit the box.  Once learned helplessness has set in, they will not try to leave the box even after it has obviously been opened.

Worried - red mix

Unfortunately, we simply do not have enough information at this point to answer the question of whether or not dogs can experience some form of depression.  What I do know, is that I have seen clear, positive changes in Darwin since he began agility.  He’s only had six classes, which isn’t a lot of time, so I suspect I will continue to see changes in him as we continue along our journey.  I should mention as well that I have specifically tried to increase his motivation by getting him interested in toys and experimenting around with different types of food rewards.  However, I never would have done this if I wasn’t motivated (there’s that word again!) by our involvement in agility.

My take home message is this: enrichment matters. 

Herding sheep

Too many dogs do not get enough enrichment in their daily lives.  It’s hard to ignore a dog that is literally bouncing off the walls or destroying your home.  But what about those dogs who don’t make such a show of their boredom or frustration?  For me, Darwin illustrates this all too well.  He certainly did not have a bad life.  Even before agility, he got walked almost every day, played with his sister multiple times a week and regularly attended outdoor events with us.  However, I still feel like something was missing for him.  Finding something our dogs truly love – something that they can do with us – can have such a positive impact on their lives.

The good news, is there are so many options these days for finding an activity we can do with our dogs to enrich their lives.  Here are some examples – all of these are available just for fun, in case competition isn’t your thing.  All of these are also open to mixed breeds.  Click on the links to see an example of the sport (many of them have music, you may want to mute your computer if you’re at work!).

Hunting - multiple dogs

  • Agility – dogs run through a course of obstacles such as jumps, tunnels and ramps
  • Flyball – dogs race over jumps, retrieve a tennis ball and race back
  • Rally-O  – dogs complete a sequence of obedience exercises, with a new course every time
  • Freestyle – Dancing with your dog
  • Tracking and nosework – can be done for fun, for competition or for search and rescue
  • Tricks – teach your dog a variety of tricks, excellent if attending formal classes is not a good option for you

Think of how much they give us – don’t we owe it to them to give them something back?

June 1 dwnld 012

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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