Promoting wellbeing in our animals

Health, welfare, and emotional wellbeing are intimately and inextricably connected. An animal’s health impacts their emotional state and their emotional state impacts their health. The way an animal perceives and responds to the world around them speaks to their stress coping skills and that, in turn, has a profound impact on health and emotional wellbeing. Animals can enter a positive feedback cycle where increased pain, discomfort and/or stress makes them more susceptible to disease and other medical issues, which in turn leads to increased pain, discomfort and/or stress.

An animal’s physical and emotional health determine their welfare. Historically, welfare is the prevention of or relief from suffering. More recently, researchers and practitioners have started to use the term ‘wellbeing’ which places more of an emphasis on promoting positive emotions such as joy. An animal that is suffering from poor welfare is likely to show behavioral manifestations as a result.  Animal welfare researchers Cheryl Meehan and Joy Mench write “it is generally accepted that abnormal behaviors develop in conditions when welfare is compromised and that the presence of abnormal behavior can be an expression of a state of poor welfare” (Meehan and Mench, 2007). That means that if we as dog professionals are presented with an animal displaying abnormal behavior, we must assume decreased welfare.

The promotion of wellbeing goes far beyond simply providing our animals with adequate food, water, shelter, and basic medical care. It also means providing additional exercise and enrichment. The impacts of species-appropriate exercise and enrichment go far deeper than many realize. In my opinion, one major source of decreased welfare in dogs is chronic frustration. They often lack the ability to engage in desired (often necessary) behaviors. This chronic frustration can result in behaviors such as destruction, increased attention-seeking behavior (often to an extreme).

Frustration occurs when there is a mismatch between the animals’ goals and their environment (Toates, 1986; Wiepkema, 1987). Frustration is not all bad – being faced with a problem that the animal is then able to solve decreases frustration and can increase confidence and may even result in positive emotions. An experiment with cattle showed that young heifers who solved a task to open a gate and receive access to food showed more excitement (jumping and kicking behavior) than hiefers who still got the food, but had the gate opened for them (Hagan and Broom, 2004). On the other hand, when animals are faced with unsolvable problems, they show increased frustration and distress (Duncan and Wood-Gush, 1972, Dantzer et al., 1980, Wiepkema, 1987).

Animals in the wild are faced with challenges on a regular basis. When we place them in homes and provide everything for them, but also remove all control, we may be providing them with the things they need to maintain welfare from a physical needs standpoint – adequate food, water, shelter, and basic medical care – but we are not necessarily providing what they need for emotional wellbeing. Meehan and Mench (2007) and Clark (2017) argue for the provision of “appropriate challenges” for our animals. These are challenges that may cause frustration, but that are solvable through the application of cognitive and behavioral skills. This allows animals to engage their body and brain in a way similar to how they would in the wild.

I have a lot to say on this topic and it would take far more than a single blog post to tease it all apart. But for now, I want to leave you with some actions you can do to improve your dog’s quality of life:

  • Pay attention to what may be impacting your dog’s emotional wellbeing. Don’t write off your dog as simply being “stubborn” or “difficult”. Consider what may be driving these behaviors. Is it a training issue? Are they frustrated because their needs aren’t being met? Are they anxious or afraid? Could they be in pain? Could there be some other kind of medical issue going on?
  • Be an advocate for your dog. If you think something is wrong, don’t ignore your instincts. Observe their behavior carefully. Are there small things you can do so decrease their frustration? Maybe they want to go left instead of right on their walk. Perhaps they don’t really want to be pet by the neighbor kids. One of my clients this week asked to move our appointment to earlier in the day because their puppy hits a wall in the evening and just really needs to sleep. This is a perfect example of advocating for your dog!
  • Find ways to challenge your dog. Challenges should be solvable and should involve a physical and/or cognitive skill. If your dog is not an experienced problem solver, then start very easy so that they can succeed. Remember that some frustration is acceptable, but too much and your dog will become distressed and/or give up.
  • Look for ways to provide your dog with choice. Increased choice is another way to improve wellbeing. Here is a video of my dog choosing his fetch toy for the day.
  • If you aren’t sure how to assess what might be driving your dog’s behavior, consult with a certified trainer or behavior consultant, or with a veterinarian if you suspect a medical issue.
  • Find a veterinarian and trainer or behavior consultant that listens carefully to you and that treats you and your animal with kindness and respect. Look for trainers/consultants that follow LIMA (“least intrusive, minimally aversive”) guidelines when working with clients. LIMA advocates for the use of methods that are effective and humane and also requires consultants to have the education and skills necessary to work with a particular behavior issue.
  • If you’re looking for a new vet clinic, look for one that is Fear Free Certified. If you’re happy with your current vet and they are not Fear Free Certified, ask that they become certified. Fear Free provides education to pet care professionals to teach them to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in their clients.

Interested in learning more about this topic? If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to my e-mail list. I am presenting a class on the Impact of Stress on Behavior for the IAABC which starts next week! You may also be interested in the Power of Choice online seminar I will be co-presenting with Irith Bloom in September.

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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About Science Matters

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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