Creating a Behaviorally Healthy Lifestyle For Our Dogs

Annual check-ups are in order.
By Suzanne Hetts PhD, CAAB, Daniel Estep PhD, CAAB, July 2016

With few exceptions, most of us in the pet industry deal with problems and solutions. Consider these examples:

  • Grooming salons and self-service dog washes offer solutions for the problem of dirty and unkempt coats.
  • Boarding kennels and pet sitters offer solutions for the problem of caring for dogs in the owner’s absence.
  • Daycares and dog walkers solve the problem of dogs being left alone all day with nothing to do.
  • Trainers, behavior consultants and behaviorists have solutions for behaviors that have become problems for owners.
  • Veterinarians have solutions when dogs are ill, even at those terrible times when the solution includes a painless, peaceful death.

A problem-based approach is still the way almost anyone who sells a product or service focuses their marketing. In fact, a reliable marketing formula is “problem, agitate, solve.” State the prospective customer’s problem, make it sound even worse, offer your solution. However, people are becoming more proactive and health-conscious regarding both themselves and their pets. The number of premium, organic pet-food diets on the market has exploded. Training techniques have, for the most part, moved away from the historical “show ’em who’s boss” approach to ones better grounded in the science of animal behavior and learning (although there is still plenty of room for improvement!). Initiatives have been undertaken to help veterinary visits be less stressful for pets.

All of these efforts to help dogs live happier, better-quality lives are laudable, but to be most helpful to owners and professionals alike, let’s put them into a broader context: which common, daily husbandry or caretaking practices have a big effect on behavioral health, both good and bad? Before we offer some examples to answer that question, we should step back and offer a few definitions.

We’ve all heard the statement “health is more than the absence of disease.” The terms health and wellness, which are sometimes used interchangeably, are rarely defined by specific, measurable criteria. When we applied that statement to pet behavioral health in our article “Behavior Wellness Concepts for the General Veterinary Practice,” we defined behavior wellness as “the condition or state of normal and acceptable pet conduct that enhances the human-animal bond and the pet’s quality of life.” To define “pet conduct,” we created the “Characteristics of Behaviorally Healthy Dogs and Cats” (which you can find at SensibleDogTraining.com and CatBehaviorHelp.com).

To conform to a wellness approach, behavioral health should be described in terms of what pets do, not what they shouldn’t do. For that reason, we’ve long encouraged our clients to ask themselves, How can I get my pet to do what I want? instead of How can I get him to stop [fill in the blank]?—which is usually the behavior(s) we are called upon to help change.

If we want to take a wellness approach, then it’s up to us to create a life for our furry family members that promotes healthy behaviors and provides an environment that meets their behavioral needs. We know that behavioral and physical health are intertwined, so the first responsibility of any pet owner is to provide preventive and all other needed medical care.

To create a behaviorally healthy lifestyle for our dogs, one that meets their needs, we first must know what their behavioral needs are. That’s a trickier undertaking than you might think.

One of the earliest attempts at this came in the 1965 Brambell Report (Farm Animal Wellness Council 1992), which listed “Five Freedoms” in reference to the care and welfare of farm animals:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst—
    Ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort—
    Providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease—
    Prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior—
    Providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress—
    Providing conditions needed to prevent mental suffering.

We worked from these freedoms and other research on behavioral needs to create our version of the Behavioral Needs of Companion Animals (Hetts, et al. 2004):

  • Provision of a safe, comfortable place to rest and sleep.
  • Freedom from or the ability to escape from unnecessary pain, fear, threats and discomfort.
  • Ability to control some aspects of the environment.
  • Opportunities to express speciestypical behaviors such as chewing, scratching and elimination.
  • Opportunities for appropriate exercise and play.
  • Opportunities for mental stimulation.
  • Opportunities for pleasant social contact with conspecifics and humans to which the animals have been socialized.

Let’s examine one common caretaking example in light of these behavioral needs: the use of crates. Is a crate really a good thing for a dog? How a crate is used to confine a dog has an impact on almost all of the behavioral needs mentioned above. It’s not uncommon for owners to crate their dogs for a typical eight-hour workday. Some also crate their dogs at night, leaving the dog with perhaps four to six hours of unconfined time each weekday. Can a dog have his needs for exercise, play, social contact, mental stimulation and expression of species-typical behaviors met in those limited hours? Unlikely, in our opinion, especially when you consider other responsibilities and activities the owners typically have on their agendas during those same hours.

And what about a crate as a comfortable place to sleep and rest? At six square feet, the crate we used to housetrain our Irish Setter, Coral, was bigger than what we often hear recommended: “just large enough for him to comfortably turn around in and not And what about a crate as a comfortable place to sleep and rest? At six square feet, the crate we used to housetrain our Irish Setter, Coral, was bigger than what we often hear recommended: “just large enough for him to comfortably turn around in and not

While crating can be a short-term technique, useful for housetraining and safe traveling, in too many instances, it becomes a way of life for dogs, one that virtually ensures that their behavioral needs will not be met. One study found, in fact, that dogs who spent considerable time in their crates were at significant risk for being surrendered to a shelter (Patronek, et al. 1996).

With so many high-end pet products available these days—from food to spa days—it’s easy to overlook the basics that dogs need to lead behaviorally healthy lives. Take a look at the characteristics of behaviorally healthy dogs and the behavioral needs of companion animals and see how your dog measures up.

In our behavior consulting work, we see common practices and beliefs that interfere with a behaviorally healthy lifestyle for dogs, including:

  • Insufficient exercise or mental stimulation.
  • On-leash greetings among dogs (the only time many dogs encounter other dogs) that often do not result in “pleasant social contact,” but instead, are setups for conflict and frustration.
  • Erroneous ideas about social dominance, which would have us believe that dogs should have no control over their environment because the owner should always be in control.
  • A crate that is too small even by federal guidelines, which is supposed to be desirable for housetraining.
  • Leash walks that don’t allow sufficient opportunities for dogs to sniff and explore and instead, are just frustrating experiences as the dog struggles against the leash or is dragged along.
  • No “kid-free” (or even adult-free!) zone or bed where the dog can rest, relax and be assured he or she won’t be disturbed or pestered.

Taking a wellness approach to your dog’s behavior also means being proactive and considering what your dog needs and how you can mitigate stress during changes in your lifestyle, such as moving, the birth of a child, or a significant change in schedule that will result in your dog being left alone for longer periods.

It also means ongoing monitoring of your dog’s behavior using our healthy-dog criteria and taking action when you notice small changes before they become big issues.

It’s human nature to avoid attending to things until they break or become problems. We may be better at getting regular maintenance on our cars than we are at maintaining our own physical and mental health and that of our dogs. We hope, however, that this article provides food for thought about how you can monitor and improve your dog’s behavior health.

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