Of Mice and Dogs

When I was an undergrad, I studied an unusual species of mouse called the spiny mouse (Acomys cahirinus). They are unusual in that they are precocious – born with fur and able to move about and feed themselves (much different than the mice we are familiar with, where babies are born quite underdeveloped and fully dependent on their parents). There were gaps and assumptions about the behavior of the spiny mouse because their natural environment is rock crevasses (making them hard to see), and in the laboratory they had traditionally been studied in conditions that other mice and rats live in. Many thought that the spiny mouse did not make nests – but my mentors and I were curious if this was truly the case, or simply that they were not given the proper environment when held in captivity to produce normal nest-making behavior.

My school was pretty nifty, and they gave me a room to make a spiny mouse castle – housing that included multilayers, plenty of rock substrate, lots of height and rock crevasses that backed to clear windows so we could see inside, and a 24-hour light cycle that simulated a true outdoor light cycle. And… yes, you can probably guess what we found – the mice behaved in all sorts of ways that they had not in their other environments. They hid their food far from their bathroom areas, they jumped, climbed and interacted with one another more than previously and yep, they built rudimentary nests from small rocks. They still did not express the full repertoire of behaviors they likely did in their natural environment, but we got close.  

I have been thinking a lot about those mice lately after meeting a recently adopted shelter dog a few weeks ago. Oak is his name, and he was adopted by a young athletic couple that I met through a friend. He was a leggy, athletic guy – likely with some husky or similar in the breed mix. He was lovely – lots of energy, and kind to me and my dogs –  and lovely on the trail, coming back with great joy each time he was called. The couple told me that when they adopted Oak he came with a prescription of “doggy Prozac” (it was amitriptyline) and a significant behavior plan for them to follow. They soon took him off the psychotropic as they suspected it was suppressing his appetite, and they also soon swayed from the behavior plan (which included keeping Oak from arousing situations).  I met Oak about 6 weeks after he was adopted, and he was about as behaviorally sound of a dog as any I have met.

Oak was in the shelter for 4 months before he went home. He was on a psychotropic they were told because he was becoming more and more stressed and aroused. They housed Oak “in the back” to keep the arousal down and to assure he would show well. It seemed what Oak needed was to simply go home with a family that would provide an opportunity for full behavioral expression.

When I think about the power of environment (a natural light cycle, a regular routine, etc.), one can see where sheltering for longer periods of time could have a significant impact on our ability to keep dogs behaving as they would in their regular home environments. The big question is – are we trying to build behaviors that, for many dogs who come into the shelter, can only be expressed in a home environment? Is it realistic to expect a young, athletic, healthy dog to control his emotions in a space in which he is limited in his behavioral expression? Could the answer for these dogs be to simply go to a home the day they come in? (Don’t think that is a realistic possibility? (Take a peek at the Adoption Ambassadors program for a great way to get pups like this out of the shelter before they begin to tank AND ensure they do not need to come back!)  

Pulling back to observe the possible behavioral expression within a context may be a paradigm shift for some in sheltering. Could we spend our resources not on training and psychotropics for these pups, but instead on adoption counselors who can explain how routine, exercise and touch can be used to help Rosco use his energy for good? We could either try to build the castle shelter in which this behavioral expression may be more likely, or we can pull back to ask if this pup needs to be in shelter (and if he does, it is for the shortest time possible). How about we save the design and intensive behavior support for those true victims of cruelty and those needing medical support, and focus on what should be the nonnegotiable for the rest – daily oral enrichment (items to chew, food dispensing devices) for all dogs, and a staff that, as a recent SAWA blog post noted, likes people and can sell those fragile high-energy dogs to those who simply want to bring a dog home… home, where he belongs. 

Emily Weiss

Emily Weiss, Ph.D. CAAB is Vice President of Research and Development for the ASPCA®.

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