For people who don’t understand this whole companion dog thing, I can imagine DOGTV being the tip of the ‘I can’t believe how crazy dog people are’ iceberg.
“Julie, have you heard about this thing called DOGTV?”
“Yes. An entire TV station for dogs. Like HBO, but for dogs. What’s next? Story time for dogs at the library?”
“We already do that.”
A nation that spent over $55 billion on pet products last year is clearly buying some extravagant and extraneous items. Yes, dogs should wear a collar, but dogs don’t care whether the collar is bedazzled or not, and dogs certainly don’t care whether they get a new one “just in time for Spring!”
Is DOGTV just another gimmick taking our love for dogs to a new level of crazy, or are we instead imposing our couch-potato culture onto dogs? Or maybe it's exactly what dogs want and need. Maybe a Gary Larson cartoon would feature two dogs passing on the street, one saying to the other, “Hey dude. Did you get DOGTV yet? It rocks! Try and come over to my place around 3 PM. That’s when the dog on the surfboard comes out. Afterwards, we’ll dig some holes in the backyard.” Could our nation’s dogs benefit from DOGTV?
DOGTV is a 24/7 subscription-based television network being pitched as a panacea for home-alone dogs. According to DOGTV, the network is “scientifically developed to provide the right company for dogs when left alone. Through years of research, special content was created to meet specific attributes of a dog’s sense of vision and hearing and supports their natural behavior patterns. The result: a confident, happy dog, who's less likely to develop stress, separation anxiety or other related problems.” The product pitch refers to lots of research -- research that is not referenced or provided on their website — that this particular product can enhance dog well-being.
Before assessing whether DOGTV is a useful development, like True Detective, or a silly one, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, it’s important to step back and understand where DOGTV is coming from.
The Importance of Enrichment
DOGTV is premised on the important animal welfare concept of “enrichment” — a term used to describe something that is added to the environment to benefit or enhance an individual’s quality of life. In some cases, enrichment can stimulate natural behaviors, increase exploration or reduce inactivity. In other cases, enrichment could habituate an individual to noxious noises by exposing him to those sounds at a threshold not bothersome.
Professionals working with animals in laboratory, farm, zoo or aquarium settings increasingly incorporate environmental enrichments, but this term does not always cross into the minds or actions of average dog owners. After all, we perceive that our dogs’ basic needs are met: many owners provide ample food, shelter and medical attention, and dogs typically have social interactions with members of their own and other species.
But what about those large gaps when we leave the house, or even the hours when we’re home and doing humans things that don’t involve the dog (like reading your favorite canine-science blog posts)? The companion dogs of 2014 have neither evolved nor been artificially selected to adapt to a life of mostly doing nothing between 9 and 5 (or more if you include travel time, stopping at the grocery store on the way home, soccer practice, stargazing, etc.). In some cases, a lack of enrichment or a complex environment could contribute to ‘unwanted’ behaviors like chewing, countertop exploration, vocalizing, and others.
In a recent interview for Bark Magazine, Penn Vet Working Dog Center director, Cindy Otto summarized the importance of enrichment for all dogs: “Many pet dogs are frustrated, bored, inactive and fat; it kind of amazes me that a lot of dogs’ lives don’t even meet the environmental-stimulation standards required for rodents living in research labs. We need to think about how stimulation, or the lack thereof, affects dogs’ quality of life.”
How to Enrich?
Enrichments mainly take one of two forms: animate enrichments — like social contact with other dogs or humans, or even training — or inanimate enrichments — like auditory, olfactory or visual stimulation such as sounds, smells, toys, food, games or, in this case, DOGTV.
DOGTV provides stimuli of the visual and auditory kind (obviously not olfactory or tactile as DOGTV can’t be smelled and dogs can’t — or shouldn’t — chew on the television). DOGTV provides dogs with three categories of content: “Relaxation,” “Stimulation” or “Exposure.” On their website, DOGTV provides a quote from the Petcare and Information Advisory service: “A television can provide all important mental stimulation for dogs and help prevent boredom behaviour.”
Dogs certainly use hearing and vision to access the world around them, but one of their main senses is olfaction, and many enrichments capitalize on smell, touch and taste (collectively, these enrichments can be called ‘manipulanda,’ which sounds like a far-off land, but often means something as simple as toys).
Animal welfare organizations such as the APSCA have comprehensive lists of different types of manipulanda for the at-home dog. Many dog enrichment devices (whether store-bought or homemade) are food-based, requiring dogs to search, smell, bite, paw or lick their way to food. Popular products include Busy Buddy toys, Kongs, Tricky Treat Ball, Tug-a-Jug, Twist ‘n Treat, the Atomic Treat Ball, TreatStik, Buster Cubes and Roll-A-Treat balls. Nina Ottosson puzzle toys are also incredibly popular, and just recently Foobler came to town: “A self-reloading puzzle feeder for your dog with a real bell that challenges, stimulates and feeds your dog for up to 9 hours.” The Foobler Kickstarter had a goal of $40,000, and they received over $80,000, showing that high-quality food-enrichment devices are in demand.
For some dog owners, regular food bowls are now a thing of the past, and dogs eat only through enrichment activities or devices where they must work for food (Animal Farm Foundation posted two videos on making and preparing food enrichment devices).
‘Goals’ and ‘Outcomes’
Bring a business approach to your dog's enrichment. ‘Goals’ and ‘Outcomes’ are catch-phrases that you might use in your 9 to 5 job, and you should bring these concepts home to your dog. Just because you “add something” to your dog’s environment doesn’t necessarily make it enriching. Enrichment is not based on your intentions or desires, or what a friend’s dog finds enjoyable. It doesn’t matter whether you spend 100 dollars or 50 cents. What matters is how the enrichment affects your dog’s behavior.
Because dogs are individuals, you'll need to pay attention to how your dog responds. If I add a plant to my house, it might be pleasing to me, and a cat might knock it over (possibly enriching for the cat), but the plant’s function of ‘enrichment’ is lost on the dog. Or, if I play “exposure” sounds to a dog that are too loud and frightening, I might sensitize the dog to the stimulus as opposed to habituating the dog to the noise. Enrichment is based on outcomes, not intentions.
Nanny Cams For All
How do you know if an “enrichment” is enriching? Start with test runs while you are home. Observe what the dog does before, during and after the enrichment exposure. But the next part is key: because many people ultimately provide enrichments when they are out of the house, nanny cams are glorious.
Before adding the enrichment, spy on your dog to see what Floofers is up to. Maybe he gets into the trash at a certain time of day or after the postman comes to the house. Maybe he barks at sounds on the street momentarily and then settles back down. Get to know your dog’s baseline behavior.
Consider what behaviors your dog would enjoy doing. Does your dog need more time resting? Or maybe he is mighty bored and would benefit from olfactory, tactile, food, visual or acoustic interventions.
Add the enrichment, whether DOGTV, food dispensing, puzzle toys, whatever, and watch how Floofers interacts with the item. Just as important, monitor his post-enrichment behavior. What is the effect of the enrichment? If Floofers sees or hears a dog on the TV, but can’t get to him (because the dog is on TV and doesn’t actually exist), does Floofers show any signs of anxiety, pacing, panting or high pitched vocalizations? A recent study found that dogs exposed to a frustrating experience tended to turn away and increase their frequency of "ambulation, sniffing and vocalizations." Or does Floofer settle down and have a snooze afterwards?
We know that dogs can benefit from enrichment, so the real question is, "Which enrichments are right for your dog?” Only you and your dog have that answer.
Image: Dwilliams815 Flickr creative commons.
Hecht, J. (2013). Great Thinkers on Dogs. Bark Magazine
Jakovcevic et al. (2013). Frustration Behaviors in Domestic Dogs, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1) 19-34. DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.740974
Nielsen et al. (2011). Chapter 13 Physical Conditions. in Animal Welfare 2nd edition. Appleby, M.C., Mench, J.A., Olsson, I.A.S. and Hughes, B.O. (Eds)
Wells D.L. (2004). A review of environmental enrichment for kennelled dogs, Canis familiaris, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85 (3-4) 307-317. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2003.11.005