Quality of the dog-human relationship is a crucial component of dog welfare.
A new research article by Marie Doane and Sirkke Sarenbo, appearing in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, reminds us that there are essential interconnections between our dog’s quality of life (QOL) and our own. This research is perhaps just a confirmation of the obvious: Companion animal QOL is directly linked to owner QOL. Dogs and their humans are deeply connected, emotionally and physically, and how one feels is almost certain to influence how the other feels. Living with a dog is not so different from living with another person: It can be wonderful, loving, and enriching, but also emotionally complex, draining, and stressful. Even in the closest, most bonded relationships, there will be pockets of hard. And the hard goes two ways: It may be distressing and anxiety-provoking for the human; and if it is, it is likely also distressing and anxiety-provoking for the dog.
The equation tends to be drawn like this: The dog has behavioral problems. This creates stress for the owner. (The problem is seen to originate with the dog.) But dogs sometimes have “behavioral problems” precisely because they are having a hard time adapting to the environment that we provide for them and are experiencing poor welfare.
Doane and Sarenbo’s study begins with the argument that a homed companion dog’s welfare consists of three primary variables: the dog’s behavior; the dog’s quality of life; and the dog owner’s quality of life as it pertains to being a dog owner. The authors of the study used three separate tools previously been developed to measure these variables in isolation. Their ultimate goal, they reported, is to work toward the development of a dog welfare measurement tool that integrates these variables and which owners could use to help identify problem areas in their dog’s life and, hopefully, use to make their dog’s life happier and more content. The authors are careful to emphasize that welfare is unique to each dog. What makes one dog thrive may be different from what makes another dog thrive, and each dog should be treated as an individual. Building on the well-accepted “Five Domains” model of animal welfare—nutrition, environment, health, behavior, affective experience—the authors add an important sixth component to the dog welfare equation, that of interaction with the dog’s human.
One of the motivations for conducting this research was the researchers’ concern that companion dogs frequently don’t get what they need. Although most have their physical needs met, many have “non-satisfactory social and mental environments.” Too many dogs spend too much time alone and lack adequate mental and social stimulation. Poor social and mental welfare can lead to “problem” behaviors in dogs, such as separation anxiety, excitability, or fear—all of which can be both a symptom of poor welfare and a further cause of poor welfare, since owners are often frustrated and impatient and may punish dogs physically or emotionally for being “bad.” This, in turn, leads to further deterioration in a dog’s mental and emotional well-being. In a vicious spiral, this further weakens the human-dog bond. Moreover, many dog owners react to “problem behaviors” by abandoning, relinquishing, or, in worst-case scenarios, euthanizing a pet.
Although some research has been conducted on the interconnections between dog quality of life and dog owner quality of life, this aspect of human-dog relationships has received less attention than it might. Not surprisingly, the researchers found significant correlations. Quality of life of dog owners, they write, “was significantly affected by stress caused by dogs displaying fear, excitability, and separation anxiety.”article continues after advertisement
The paper by Doane and Sarenbo reminded me of the very important work done by Mary Beth Spitznagel and her colleagues on caregiver burden. (See here and here.) Spitznagel has explored the experiences of humans who are caregivers for seriously ill or aged companion animals and has found that caregiving burden is similar to that experienced in the human realm. Providing care for an aged, ill, or otherwise health-challenged animal can impose emotional, physical, and financial burdens, and often caregivers of animals are as strung out and exhausted as caregivers of human aged or ill loved ones—perhaps even more so, since there is less of a safety net and support system for those caring for animals. When caregivers are so stressed that they suffer from reduced psychosocial functioning, their ability to provide good care may be compromised.
As the authors of the current study note, any dog welfare assessment tool that doesn’t include the dog owner’s perceptions and feelings is “inadequate and should be challenged.”
Doane M, Sarenbo S, A modified combined CBARQ and QoL for both the companion dog and its owner. An embryo to a companion dog welfare measurement?, Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2019), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.02.012.