Can dogs become the victims of depression?

Once in a while all of us feel down in the dumps, but getting diagnosed with depression is a whole different story. It is a condition with far-reaching consequences for both the victim and their loved ones. It is debilitating, and not something you can simply ‘snap out of’. Sadly, our dogs can also suffer from depression. Animaltalk consulted the experts – here’s what you need to know.

Why so gloomy?

There can be any number of causes for depression, but the most common seems to be where the animal has no control over an aversive situation. In 1975, Martin Seligman discovered that unavoidable electric shock will cause depression in dogs. It is widely believed that this same phenomenon of having no control over punishment is one of the root causes of depression in humans. In dogs this is often termed ‘learned helplessness’, where the dog will no longer offer any behaviours as he is certain that no matter what he does, punishment will follow. Dogs who are extremely bored and are kept in environmentally impoverished conditions are also prone to depression, as they have no way of performing natural behaviours that would elevate their mood state.

Signs of depression

The symptoms of depression in dogs are similar to what is experienced by humans. Look out for the following:

  • Dogs suffering from depression, just like people, lose interest in the things they previously enjoyed.
  • A depressed dog may show an inability to concentrate, which can be seen most clearly in training, where he may battle to carry out exercises he previously mastered.
  • Sleeping patterns may change – from sleeping all the time to waking during the night.
  • A change in weight can be a sign of depression – the dog will either have a loss of appetite or gain weight.

Bring back the tail wags!

If you have a dog who is suffering from depression, the first step is to identify the cause. If the cause is any form of punishment, this must stop completely. Contrary to popular belief, the dog does not know that he was ‘naughty’! The dog has no idea why he is being punished and can become depressed. Punishment comes in different forms, including:

  • Physical punishment – smacking the dog or hurting him in any way.
  • The use of training tools like shock collars, prong or pinch collars and choke chains, which cause the dog pain.
  • Psychological punishment includes shouting at the dog or using an item that makes a loud noise to scare him.
  • Another form of punishment is the so-called ‘rank reduction programme’. This is where the dog’s anticipated daily rewards are removed in a misguided effort to alter a problem behaviour; for example, a dog who was always allowed to cuddle on the couch is suddenly stopped from doing this because he has been digging up the garden. To the dog, this makes no sense.

Busy dog = happy dog

If depression is due to the environment the dog is kept in, then the owner needs to research what their dog was bred to do. For example, Spaniels are retrieving dogs so like to hold things in their mouths, Jack Russells are ratters so like to chase and dig, and Beagles are scent hounds and like to follow a trail. Work on giving the dog an opportunity to perform his breed-specific traits.

This can easily be achieved by using food to its fullest advantage – hiding food for the dog to find can keep him busy for hours instead of just five minutes twice a day when the bowl of food is put down. Food can also be put into brain toys like Kongs, or cow hooves can be stuffed and hidden in the garden. During summer it’s a great idea to freeze a tub of stock with treats in and then turn it out for your dog in the morning.

There are many things that can be done to make a dog’s life a lot more interesting, and all of these will help alleviate depression. Don’t forget the benefits of a walk, which is not all about the exercise. Sure that’s part of it, but of as much benefit is the sniffing. This gives the dog a lot of mental stimulation – similar to reading a good book! Spending time devoted to training your dog pays dividends, especially if you are using clicker training, which makes the dog think about what you want him to do, thus providing great mental stimulation.