Hey, how was your day? You probably dashed off to work, had a meeting or two, caught up with your coworkers over lunch, completed some assignments, then dashed back home again, where you were enthusiastically met at the door by your dog, who—to paraphrase Bill Maher—always greets you like you’re The Beatles.
Now, take a moment to contemplate how Fluffy’s day went. She woke up, had her breakfast, went outside to “do her business,” watched you get ready for work, maybe went for a short walk if you weren’t running late, accompanied you to the door, and then spent the next nine or 10 (or more) hours waiting for you to return.
Your day was full of activity, mental stimulation, problem-solving, and interaction with others—while her day was full of … staring at the walls. See anything wrong with this picture? Animal behaviorists do.
“[E]ven the most well-meaning owner doesn’t always provide what an animal needs, and it is likely that our dogs and cats may be suffering in ways we don’t readily see or acknowledge,” says bioethicist Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.
Dogs are highly social animals. They’ve evolved to have what scientists call a “hypersociability” gene. That’s one reason why humans are so drawn to them—and vice versa. Dogs don’t just crave contact with others—they need it. Without social interaction, they become depressed and withdrawn and can develop behavioral issues.
Take dogs who are relegated to a chain in a backyard 24 hours a day, for example. Such extreme restraint is, not surprisingly, a recipe for disaster—it can drive them insane and make them overly fearful, anxious, and aggressive. Studies have found that chained dogs are more likely to bite than untethered ones, and one study found that a quarter of fatal dog attacks are by chained dogs.
To most of us, chaining up a dog outside all day in all weather extremes is obviously cruel. “Who would do such a thing? Why do they even a have a dog?” we ask ourselves. But some of us scratch our dogs behind the ears and then walk out the door, leaving them alone for hours on end, day after day—sometimes confined to a crate that they can barely turn around in!
Just the act of leaving a dog home alone can cause stress, experts say, which is usually at its worst within the first half hour—but sometimes can last all day. Blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol can be elevated the entire time the dog is alone. Dogs with separation anxiety may remain anxious all day long, spending hours pacing, circling, barking, or howling—some may even vomit or chew on themselves. “Dogs with separation problems tend not to settle for long periods at all, even when the owner is out for several hours,” says Dr. Emily Blackwell of the University of Bristol.
Why are dogs so stressed by being left alone? Because it’s unnatural. “The separation from the owner for the dog is not voluntary,” says University of Trento neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara. “It is always unnatural for a dog to detach and abandon the pack.”
Yet many dogs these days spend their entire lives involuntarily separated from their loved ones, beginning when they’re taken away from their mothers and siblings as puppies. Then, after bonding with their new human families, they’re routinely left isolated for long stretches of time.
It’s little wonder that dogs hail us like conquering heroes when we come home. For all they knew, we were never coming back again! On top of that, they’ve had nothing to do all day but await our return. Show of hands—how many of you give your dog a perfunctory greeting before plopping down on the couch to read the mail, check social media, or flip on the TV? Fido has been waiting all day for you to come home … and you barely give him the time of day. “We can too easily forget that although we have an entire world outside our home, we are everything to our animals,” points out Dr. Pierce. “Perhaps we can try to step into their paws or claws and see what being a pet means from their perspective. We might not always like what we see.”
So what’s a busy animal guardian to do? Obviously, you can’t quit your job to hike the Appalachian Trail with your dog, as appealing as that may sound, but there are things that you can do to make your dog’s life more fulfilling.
For starters, you should always strive to take your dog for a long walk every day, preferably first thing in the morning. This may mean you have to get up earlier or skip the morning Starbucks run or gym workout, but so be it. Your dog’s fundamental needs are more important than those things.
Next, you can help keep your dog’s mind engaged by providing interactive toys (such as a hard rubber hollow toy filled with peanut butter and frozen overnight or a puzzle treat dispenser) as you walk out the door. This will also help your dog associate your departure with something positive.
Can’t get home at lunchtime to let your dog out? Arrange for a trusted friend, relative, or dog walker to do it. If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, consider a carefully screened doggie daycare a few days a week. (You might also consider adopting a second dog for companionship.) Better yet, ask your employer about implementing a dog-friendly office policy.
Experts agree that dogs should not be left alone for more than four hours. Dogs most certainly shouldn’t be forced to wait longer than that to relieve themselves, stretch their legs, and get mental stimulation from exploring outdoors. Do you go all day without a bathroom break? Of course not. Neither should your dog.
When you get home, be sure to spend some meaningful quality time with your dog. Go out in the yard and play a game of fetch. Visit the dog park for a play date. Catch up on your dog’s grooming. Take a long, leisurely walk, and let your dog stop and smell the roses—not to mention the fire hydrants! Walks tend to be dogs’ favorite part of the day!
If you haven’t yet adopted an animal companion, think long and hard about the amount of time and energy that you have to be able to provide them with the companionship they crave. “[I]f we really care about animals, we ought to look beyond the sentimental and carefully scrutinize our practices,” says Dr. Pierce. “Animals are not toys—they are living, breathing, feeling creatures.”