The super fun-looking new kids movie The Secret Life of Pets seems to imply that while the owners are away, domesticated animals will play. This is a great jumping off point for some rose-colored anthropomorphizing, but it also isn’t so. Animals forced to spend a lot of time alone just spend a lot of time alone. Canine depression is — all animating aside — an epidemic.
Dr. John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist at the University of Bristol, believes The Secret Life of Pets might be doing a disservice to pets in real life. Bradshaw’s research focuses on the behavior of domesticated cats and dogs and the way they form relationships with people.
“I think the popular conception is that being cooped up in a small space is the damaging thing, because that’s what would be most upsetting for us,” Bradshaw says. “A small space isn’t the problem, the problem is much more to do with the way the animal perceives the situation.”
Cats like to stay vigilant and might be uncomfortable if they can’t see out a window, but are otherwise fine. Dogs, on the other hand, but struggle on their own in almost any living situation. They are, after all, pack animals.
“We know the majority of dogs hate being left alone and get quite distressed when their owner leaves,” Bradshaw says. “The owner might think that howling loudly and barking might stop once they leave, but it doesn’t necessarily. And there are a lot of dogs that suffer in silence, that pace the apartment. Scientists who have examined their stress hormones know that their stress is sky-high, even if they’re not doing anything particularly obvious.”
This problem is compounded by the fact that dogs have a surprisingly poor sense of time; they can measure its passing, but they can’t really think ahead. This means that while you might expect your dog to be able to extrapolate that since you returned home at 7 p.m. every night this week you’ll probably be back at the same tonight, most dogs actually aren’t capable of that kind of thinking.
Any responsible pet owner who wants to leave their dog alone during the day, therefore, needs to train it to cope with their absence. According to Bradshaw, this isn’t especially difficult — regardless of the dog’s age — if you’re working with a pet who’s never been left before and hasn’t already associated loneliness and stress. Exercise before absence helps, as do toys that allow for interactivity. It’s a popular misconception that getting a second dog will solve the problem, but rather than consoling each other and providing good company, Bradshaw says distressed dogs tend to wind each other up (which is kind of an amazing concept for the Life of Pets sequel).
“Dogs do not get up to all kinds of fun and games with their friends when you are gone,” Bradshaw says. “A movie like that could reinforce people’s misconceptions that dogs are perfectly happy to be left alone. It’s a great shame.”