I am at a seminar given by a guru in the world of animal welfare. This man is not a vet. He is a scientist and somewhat of a philosopher too. Professor David Mellor says that when an animal is engaged in its environment it does so with enthusiasm and purpose. He says you recognize easily the happy hen – there is nothing half-hearted about the way it forages and searches the dirt. He mimics the sound of a happy hen and the audience smiles. We all know the burp burp burp of the happy hen. It doesn’t require training.
I think about the analogy of the happy hen – of how I can use this in behavioural medicine with clients and their dogs. Why do people so easily fail to see the discomfort, fear and anxiety in their dogs? Do they not know what a happy dog looks like? So often people see compliance and tolerance in dogs as calmness, when really it is an expression of learned helplessness.
In behaviour medicine it is imperative to change an animal’s emotional response to the triggers of its fear and anxiety. This is done through association. As a dog learns to associate its fears with yummy high value treats, over time the fear and anxiety may decrease. This is our job – to change emotional response.
David Mellor says how new understanding in neuroscience is making changes to welfare. Animals (including us) do stuff because they find it rewarding – it results in the release of the happy neurochemicals. As I say to clients all the time – dogs do what works for them. If being aggressive is a successful strategy to keep scary things away then that is what they will do. The treatment here is not punishment of the aggressive response but teaching the dog that the scary thing is not scary in the first place. As scientists, who used to be so wary of anthropomorphism, it is now apparent that recognizing the emotional lives of animals is indeed an important part of welfare and behaviour medicine. I feel I have known this for some time – open your eyes and look at what the animal is doing. The dog is right there in front of you – behaving – you just have to look. Anthropomorphize well.
Often times owners are confused when we recommend enrichment in their dogs lives as a treatment for fear and anxiety. They are unsure how this will make a difference. I implore them not to underestimate what using your brain to find your food can do for the rest of your life. But it is hard to convince people. I think now, after listening to Professor Mellor, I might use the example of the happy hen. Giving dogs creative ways to forage and search for food allows them to do what they have evolved to do – scavenge. It fulfills in them a basic need to use their senses. Give your dog a hobby and watch it engage – if it is really enthused you will know it. It will not look half-hearted.