In the bigger sense we could conjure up several different answers. Perhaps the point of life is to pass on genetic material to the next generation; perhaps some might think there are religious reasons, or maybe we’ve been looking for reasons for 6 million years where there are none. But what about at a smaller scale? What’s the point of an individual animal’s life? The main point (or benefit) of being an animal, as opposed to being a tree, is surely the freedom to move around and choose where the best nutrients or shelter might be. Such a system of allowing individuals to perceive, calculate cost to benefit and choose appropriately, requires a brain. Why would the brain care what it and the rest of the animal does? Why would it be bothered about food or shelter or passing on genes? It cares because it evolved to feel emotions. Emotions are the driving force of behaviour, and before I’m deafened by shouts of ‘anthropomorphism’, emotions were probably the first conscious experience of animals and existed long before humans walked the earth (Panksepp, 2011).
To be an animal, is to make choices. Choices bring control. It allows animals to move away from whatever they find unpleasant (or harmful) and towards what they find pleasant (or beneficial). The lack of such control is generally accepted to diminish mental well-being (Leotti et al., 2010). For example, if the animal cannot move away from an aversive event, they may experience learned helplessness (a debilitating depressive condition whereby the animal gives up trying to escape the aversive), which, over time, tends to generalise to other areas of the animal’s life which are otherwise separate from the aversive event causing the helplessness. You might be able to imagine this by thinking about a break-up or sudden unemployment – we easily generalise the low feelings to other areas of our lives; perhaps we feel something close to generalised helplessness. I imagine many readers are thinking that I’m anthropomorphising ‘again’. However, the phenomenon of learned helplessness is directly from studies of dogs (Overmier and Seligman, 1967), not humans.
Learned helplessness is perhaps an extreme example but loss of control generally increases stress. If you have control of events, you have less to be stressed about. A very clear example is the phenomena of ‘on-leash reactivity’ whereby many dogs who are not reactive (to other dogs) when off-leash, become highly reactive when on-leash. The difference is that off-leash the dog has more choices – he can investigate and back-off if necessary, but on-leash (which may be necessary for safety reasons) the dog has far fewer options and he knows it. The more control the dog has, the less fearful and anxious they need to be. However, life isn’t stress-free, it never was, and it never will be. Some stress is needed to build resilience and coping ability – but there are more than enough natural stressors in the environment. Captive animals, including companion animals, have undergone a huge reduction in their opportunities to make choices, and making choices is the whole point of being an animal and carrying that heavy brain everywhere you go.
Obviously, domestication has equipped some animals to cope far better with human interference than others, but no animal has yet evolved to give up their choices to another species. But let’s not get too carried away – dogs need our care and involvement just as human children do – I’m not suggesting we fling open the door and let them choose when to come and go, but I am suggesting that we actively increase opportunities for choice and control. It is time to seriously consider the mental health of the dogs we keep as companions. This may be done with some relatively simple measures; for example, increasing the number of sleeping areas, providing a range of enrichment activities, never forcing a dog to comply (unless absolutely necessary for health and safety reasons), not forcing dogs into areas they do not want to go, letting go of our obsession with micro-managing their every movement, and letting them stop and sniff when they want to. Dogs give us so much, including boosting our mental health – the very least we can do is look after theirs.