social well-being for dogs

Companionship and social well-being are as vital to his quality of life as food, water and shelter.

My mother is an animal lover. That’s why she called the cops. After several weeks of listening to her neighbor’s lone dog crying and barking in their backyard every day, she felt she had to do something. Two officers visited the house, took half a minute to assess the situation, then left. One of them later called my mother to report they found nothing amiss.

“But the dog’s back there all day, every day!” she said.

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do. He has food, water and shelter.”

“But he’s alone! He’s obviously upset!”

“Look, lady, I’m not going to get into a philosophical discussion with you about whether or not animals have feelings, all right?”

My mother calmed down, thanked him for his time, and hung up. She felt defeated. According to Missouri’s laws on animal neglect and abuse, her neighbors were doing everything they had to for their dog. These laws are similar across the country. All an animal legally needs is adequate care and control. This includes food, clean water, shelter and health care. There is nothing in the books that state an animal should also be offered companionship or opportunities for social bonding.

So what could my mother do? Short of dog-napping, nothing. Just sit on the back porch and listen to her neighbor’s emotionally and socially neglected dog whine, howl and bark. Even though her neighbors lived up to the legal standards of animal care, it still felt wrong to her.

That’s because it is wrong.

Dogs are social beings

The human-canine bond has been developed and maintained over tens of thousands of years. Dogs have enriched and changed our lives as we have theirs. Through both intentional and unintentional selective breeding over the course of time, we have transformed wild canines into loyal companions. This was only possible because, like people, dogs are highly social creatures who rely on companionship and social bonding for their overall health, well-being and survival. Social bonding is as necessary for their quality of life as food, water and shelter.

Social distress is linked to the pain response (“This hurts!”), place attachment (“I want to go home!”) and thermoregulation (“I need warmth!”). These are related to the need for touch and comfort from the mother/guardian. While some animals are needier than others, all domesticated animals require some form of companionship and healthy social bonding. Otherwise, they can become both mentally and physically unwell.

Effects of social deprivation

Physical: Severe distress due to isolation or lack of social bonding can result in a depression of the immune system, thereby increasing the chance of illness. Loneliness can also cause the animal to care for himself less, and that includes a failure to eat or drink properly. Even when provided with food and water, he may not bother with them, and this will lead to weakness and ill health.

Emotional: Dogs also suffer emotional distress when deprived of companionship with people and other animals. This is true for both puppies and adult dogs.

• Since a dog’s attachment to her human family is like that of an animal’s attachment to her mother, she will behave like a puppy without her mother when she’s isolated. That whining you hear from a dog tied alone in the backyard? It’s a distress call. A baby animal makes that noise for her mother to hear so she will return and they can be together again, safe and sound.

• Dogs often experience separation anxiety due to isolation and desertion. Separation anxiety is a condition in which the animal exhibits signs of excessive distress. These signs include heavy panting, excessive drooling, house soiling, excessive vocalization, appetite suppression, and destructive behavior.

The dog may try to escape from his confinement, even if it results in self-injury and damage to his environment (i.e. your or someone else’s property).

• Isolation can cause mental and emotional decline, leading to behavioral issues. This includes what’s called stereotypic behavior (abnormal repetitive behavior). Its main characteristics are that it’s repetitive, invariant (doesn’t change), and seemingly pointless. This behavior includes excessive constant pacing, chewing and licking. It can continue even if the animal is removed from the distressing environment. For example, I know a rescue pocket Yorkie who had been raised for breeding in a puppy mill. Because of his isolation, confinement, and frustrated energy, he spun in circles over and over and over.

This behavior continues even now, several years after his rescue, because he repetitively spun so often and learned to do so at such a young and impressionable age.

• When a dog is left alone all the time, he doesn’t learn proper social behavior, and this can cause issues such as aggression, fear or other antisocial tendencies, especially when his isolation is compounded by confinement and frustration.

Being a good, responsible animal lover must include being a good companion to him. Depriving a dog (or cat, horse, bird, etc.) of essential social needs is just as bad as depriving him of essential physical needs. Animal abuse and neglect laws should reflect this, but until they do, greater awareness and education will help at least some people wise up and rise to the occasion, with or without laws (see sidebar below). To quote Dr. Temple Grandin from her book, Animals in Translation: “All domestic animals need companionship. It is as much a core requirement as food and water.”

social well-being for dogs action tips