Kennel State of Mind

Study finds kenneled dogs show signs associated with mental illness
By JoAnna Lou, April 2014
Dog in a Cage
I think all of us would agree that dogs shouldn't live in a cage all day, but the reality is that many pups, working canines in particular, do spend the night in a kennel. Although these canines have an active life, a new study found that these dogs showed signs of distress often associated with mental illness.

Researchers at University of Bristol's Anthrozoology Institute looked at the behavior of 30 police dogs living in a U.K. kennel. They were all male German Shepherds, specifically chosen to avoid other influencing factors, such as differences due to breed temperament, size, sex, etc. After their work shift, the dogs primarily lived in a facility that accommodated 40 dogs with a run and an enclosed resting area.

Analyzing video of the dogs, the researchers noticed the following repetitive behaviors:

  • Bouncing off the walls: Jumping at a wall and rebounding from it or jumping in one spot
  • Spinning: Turning in a tight circle, pivoting on the hind legs
  • Circles: Walking around the perimeter of the kennel
  • Paces: Walking back and forth along a boundary or imaginary line
93 percent of the dogs performed one or more of the repetitive behaviors. Scientists say that this kind of obsessive behavior is associated with numerous mental health problems. The root cause of these actions isn't known, but in humans it's thought that focused behaviors are an attempt to block out painful stimulation.

The researchers thought that the dogs may be reacting to isolation from humans. These kennel situations are very different from crating your pup while you're away at work. Dogs are naturally social, and because these police canines work so closely with people during the day, I can see how it would be jarring to be suddenly cut off at night.

You'd think that these repetitive behaviors would mean that the dogs had high stress levels, but not all of the pups showed exceptionally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers hypothesize that these dogs may use the actions as a coping mechanism.

I wonder what these findings mean for other working dogs, like sheepdogs that might be kenneled outside at night, or even dogs boarded while their family is on vacation. The team hopes to do further studies to explore the negative effects of these behaviors and I hope they explore other kennel situations as well.

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.