We Have Turned Dogs Into Neurotic Wrecks

sad dog, depressed dog

Not satisfied with mutilating the physical makeup of dogs over the last century we have now, by all accounts, inflicted our mental health problems onto them making them neurosis ridden wrecks that require a legion of behaviourists, clinical animal behaviourists, psychiatrists, counsellors and a variety of trainers to make them compliant and contented with our modern lifestyles. We are basically messing with their minds because they are confused about their place in our lives and suffering from the lack of freedom and attention they require.

Dogs now allegedly suffer from depression, separation anxiety, stress, panic attacks, social anxiety, noise anxiety , Obsessive Compulsion Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, phobias, aggression, self mutilation, compulsive licking through boredom, excessive sleeping through depression, inappropriate toiletry (that’s messing in the house to me and you), inappropriate vocal behaviour (that’s barking when they get frustrated, bored or excited) and destructiveness – to name a few. This situation has resulted in the rise of the new science and burgeoning industry of animal behaviour with thousands of experts making a very productive living out of it.

The causes of all this anguish, according to “experts”, include being left alone too much, being abused, loud noises, lack of stimulating exercise, changes to their routine, upsets within the family, not being given enough attention and petting, not being taken on familiar walks and being taken out by strangers. Coincidentally many of the reasons why some people should not acquire a dog in the first place.

Latch-Key dogs were mentally happier and healthier

I can remember the days of the “latch-key” dog, so named because their owners let them out in the morning not expecting to see them back until their dinner time. They could roam to their heart’s content, be dogs by following their natural behaviours and seek human or fellow canine companionship whenever they chose. They had the best of all worlds and were happier and more healthy for it. Sure they got into fights, had quite a few illegitimate kids and occasionally got hit by cars, when as an RSPCA officer working in the east of London, I had to help them out, but they were robust and owners didn’t feel the need to rush them for psychotherapy.

I am not suggesting for one moment that we should return to those days and it would be impossible anyway because of our change in attitudes to the care and management of dogs. Changes in the law dictate that they must be kept under strict control in public and even at home, severely restricting their opportunities to express their natural behaviours. We incarcerate them home alone due to work and social commitments and often ignore them when we are present. Many owners further stifle their natural instincts by treating them as children, dressing them up and carrying them around in bags or strollers. We also unfairly expect them to participate in any extreme sport we can invent for them. We have made them totally dependent on us for all their survival and recreational needs so no wonder they are stressed.

dog looking longingly out of window
Dreaming of the days of the latch-key dog?

The part we all play in shaping their mental health

It is common now to be a weekend dog owner, leaving them home alone when they are at work or out enjoying themselves and pass their responsibilities onto dog day creches, professional dog walkers or take them to a dog play parks where they have to cope with dozens of other dogs jumping all over them while trying to establish their position in the pack. Much of this is very confusing for the dog and makes it difficult for them to bond with an owner.

At the other end of the spectrum we have owners who look upon them as buddies, pet kids and soul mates and insist they accompany them everywhere, whether suitable or not, which on the face of it is very laudable, but it can be a selfish attitude with no guarantee that the dog is enjoying the activity we are thrusting on it. So we shut them in cars, take them shopping, tie them up outside shops, allow children to manhandle them, demean them by dressing them up in absurd clothes , carry them around in handbags, put them in prams and strollers, drag them behind bikes or tow them behind in buggies, make them run marathons and convince ourselves they are enjoying it. The dogs would perhaps rather be doing something else such as just being a dog and doing doggy things.

Those left home alone without any stimulus for long periods unsurprisingly get depressed and are further frustrated, confused and spooked when owners, wanting to ease their guilt, use high tech equipment to spy on them, talk to them from the ether and feed them while nowhere in sight. And thanks to the present mania for training, we drive them mad by using “clickers” or whistles to control them and browbeat them by putting electric collars on them, constantly yank their leads, shout at them and in some instances hit them.

Dog clicker training
Clicking dogs to distraction.

Owners need more training

No wonder the modern day dog has so many hangups just like many of their modern day owners. Ironically it is not really the dogs that need the education and counselling, but owners who should fully understand and take note of the part we all play in shaping a dog’s mental health.

We have bred them to be companion animals and so it follows that we should do everything possible to give them a stable quiet home where they are the focus of our attention as their’s is to us. But it must not be at the expense of their freedoms and natural behaviours. There has to be a balance. If this means discouraging dog ownership with more emphasis on the suitability of owners to take on the responsibility of a dog then so be it. Instead of finding more artificial ways of coping with a dog, we may have to consider curbing ownership and do more to allow dogs to be dogs.

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Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.