Improving the affective state of rescue dogs

We have already identified that dogs housed in rescue kennels are more likely to suffer compromised welfare.

In order to try and counteract this, a variety of methods of enrichment have been suggested by scientists over recent years in order to try and improve welfare in rescue establishments. Enrichment can be split into two types – “animate” enrichment (increased contact with conspecifics and humans) and “inanimate” enrichment (increased provision of toys, cage furniture, and olfactory and auditory stimuli).  For a full review see Wells (2004).

Animate enrichment

Dogs are social animals needing contact with both other dogs (e.g. Fox, 1965) and people (e.g. Freedman et al, 1961). While individual housing may be considered detrimental in terms of welfare (e.g. resulting in the onset of behavioral deficits such as withdrawal, stereotyping and barking), it is the most common form of rescue housing in the UK – most probably due to decreased chance of conflict, disease and injury. Even so, individually housed dogs should be provided with visual contact with other dogs when possible – Wells and Hepper (1998) found that individually housed dogs spent 87.7% of their time at the front of their kennel (positioned to see other dogs) when provided with visual conspecific contact compared to 24.6% time spent at the front of their kennel when isolated from other dogs – suggesting a need for dogs to fulfill social desires when provided with the opportunity to do so. However, it should be borne in mind that increased contact with conspecifics may stimulate other, less desirable behaviours, such as barking – which may be detrimental to the hearing of dogs and impair other physiological systems (Sales et al, 1997).

It has been suggested that human contact may be of more benefit to dogs’ welfare than contact with conspecifics (e.g. Fox 1986). Handling by humans has been found to decrease heart rate in dogs (Lynch and Gantt, 1968) as well as increasing socialisation (Hubrecht, 1993) . Suggested ways to increase human contact for dogs in rescue include daily grooming sessions (Tuber et al, 1999), training sessions (Wells and Hepper, 2000), and also interspecific play (Russell, 1936).

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Inanimate enrichment

As well as having contact with other dogs and people, dogs need a stimulating environment in order to optimise welfare.

Environmental

Environmental enrichment can take many forms, including furniture within the kennel, toys and food filled puzzle games.

Furniture within the kennel is thought to increase the complexity of an animal’s environment, thus improving welfare. As well as additions such as platforms encouraging investigatory behaviours in dogs (Hubrecht, 1993), it was reported dogs also spent time playing and jumping on top of the structures (Hubrecht, 1992).

There is conflicting evidence as to whether toys encourage exploration, increase activity levels and reduce abnormal behaviours, or whether they do little to promote positive behavioural changes (see Newberry, 1995, and Sheperdson et al, 1996, for reviews). Suggestions for the lack of stimulation from introducing toys to the kennel environment include that the environment is so stimulating anyway that the increased stimulus provided by the toy has little significance. However, Schipper et al (2008) found that kennelled dogs that were given feeding enrichment toys exhibited less frequent episodes of barking and increased exercise, suggesting a more positive affective state.  Research has shown that potential owners find an environmentally enriched kennel more appealing than a barren one, and so may serve an indirect benefit to rescue dogs through increasing the likelihood of them being rehomed.

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Auditory

Dogs have been found to exhibit more behaviours suggestive of relaxation (suggestive of positive affective state) upon exposure to classical music, and more behaviours indicative of agitation (increased barking) upon exposure to heavy metal music (Wells et al, 2002). In support of this, Kogan et al (2012) found that dogs spent more time sleeping and less time vocalising when classical music was played in comparison to heavy metal music – indicating increased positive affective state. However, in the same study it was found that specialist psychoaccoustically altered music (such as canine lullabies) had little effect  on behaviour – despite this music having been designed to be played in rescue centres.

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Olfactory

It has been suggested that olfactory enrichment may improve affective state of kennelled rescue dogs. Graham et al (2005) found that dogs spent more time resting, less time vocalising and less time moving upon exposure to lavender and chamomile scents when compared to other stimuli. They also found rosemary and peppermint encouraged more standing, moving and vocalising behaviours in rescue dogs.

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Overall

Such a conflict in opinion over the benefits of environmental enrichment, and the degree as to what enrichment should be added to the rescue kennel environment, illustrates the need for a robust and reliable method of assessing welfare to be developed and highlights the potential for using reward sensitivity to assess whether a change of affective state becomes apparent after the introduction, of what we see as improvements, within the rescue environment.

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