The Impact of Social Isolation
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Why ending the practice of isolation is overdue in animal sheltering and that caring for a dog's social needs is non-negotiable
Originally published in BARKS from the Guild (issue 40 / january 2020)
A dead chicken was discovered in the coop. At the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility, where the characters of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black enjoy a farm therapy program, the deceased chicken was assumed to have been murdered.
A strange newcomer chicken was immediately suspect. The incarcerated individual* in charge of the chicken program, Suzanne, decides to isolate the murderous chicken, “So it doesn’t strike again.” Later, a corrections officer asks Suzanne, “Why is this one in an inappropriately sized enclosure?” “Misbehaved,” she responds. “Ah,” the C.O. says, “Is this helping?” As Suzanne mulls over her isolation solution, another chicken is discovered dead. Two episodes later, Suzanne is seen placing each and every chicken into a small box. Social needs are briefly discussed, but Suzanne declares, “Now, I know it is not ideal, but it is the only solution that we’ve got.”
Group housing in animal shelters, at least in California, is rare. Isolation is employed as a widespread solution for prevention of disease and injury. Disease is expensive. Dog fights are scary. It is completely normal for humans to be terrified of both. Dogs are equipped with large and sharp teeth, which can cause injury, even death. When we isolate dogs into single kennels, we are keeping them safe, right? We are attending to the second, third and fifth of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.
Over the course of eight years working full time at animal shelters, hundreds of dog-dog introductions, playgroups and roommate pairings, I have seen my share of dog fights. As all animals are individuals, and all combinations are unique, conflicts fall along a very wide spectrum of intensity. The vast majority of fights were merely ritualized, aggressive displays between the dogs: growling, baring teeth, stiff body postures of weight shifted forward, and air-snapping. Of these hundreds of interactions, there have been only three cases in which one or more of the dogs required serious medical attention, including shaving, suturing and/or antibiotics. One dog sustained a one inch long laceration to her leg, the other two dogs received clean punctures with no bilateral tearing of the skin. I have never witnessed a fatality. In the shelters I’ve worked where dogs were co-housed, no supervision was provided overnight, no one was present to separate fighting dogs, or punish anti-social behavior with any combination of water squirting, loud shake cans, air-horns or electric shock. I’ve never started my day with dogs injured overnight.
Maybe I have been lucky. These are merely case studies, at best. However, a review of available research tells a similar story: that social isolation does more harm than good, and that injurious fights are the exception, not the norm. One study concluded, “In assessing the psychosocial well-being of dogs, social isolation may be as harmful or more harmful than spatial restriction” (Hetts, Clark, Calpin, Arnold & Mateo, 1992). In a German study of dogs housed in groups, ninety-one percent of the social confrontations between dogs housed together were settled by the use of behavioral rituals, (Mertens & Unshelm, 1996). Finally, both the stress related behavior of barking and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol were reduced by housing dogs in pairs or groups, even among dogs still in solitary housing at the same facility (Grigg, Nibblett, Robinson, & Smits, 2017).
While solitary kenneling is still widespread, other kinds of dog-dog social interactions, including structured, human-managed dog playgroups, appear to be gaining popularity in shelters. There are at least three organizations providing SOPs and training on how to best run playgroups, including PPG's Shelter & Rescue Committee, which has a playgroup protocol forthcoming in early 2020. This is great news for social dogs living in shelters.
Current protocols available vary widely in suggested human interventions to prevent fights. I wonder, though, how much our methods affect fight frequency and intensity. Are there more fights and more injurious fights when we elicit frustration (and frustration related behavior like barking, thrashing, lunging) by over-managing social interactions with leashes and restraint? Are we creating fear of other dogs by punishing any normal, non-injurious display of aggression? Or, as some people do, punishing normal displays of even non-aggressive behaviors like mounting or chasing? If you, at your first junior high dance, tried an awkward dance move or stepped on the toes of another dancing kid and a chaperone threw a jug of pennies at you, you probably wouldn't buy a ticket to the prom.
One day we may have better research on how to encourage play, increase pro-social conspecific interaction, and decrease aggression in groups of dogs. My current bias is that the smallest amount of human intervention produces the best social vocabularies.
Again, dog fights are scary. They are used, illegally, for the entertainment of humans precisely for this reason. However disgusting many of us find it, some people enjoy this type of adrenaline rush. While I admittedly know very little about organized dog fighting, I do know that the practice requires training of the dogs, however gruesome these practices. It’s normal for humans to feel afraid of conflict and big teeth. However, very few fights end in death or even serious injury. We shelter managers, veterinarians and employees would do well to identify our biases about dog play and dog fights and seek to challenge them. This is a difficult process, a daily undertaking that requires self-reflection and active communication with others who may disagree or feel uncomfortable. Why are we imposing social isolation to assuage our fears? Apparently, left to their own devices and without any human interventions or management, dogs aren’t killing each other very often. They are, after all, an incredibly successful species.
On some level we know isolation is cruel and unusual. A chicken allegory made its way into popular culture via a television show about a women’s prison -- likely less as commentary on animal welfare practices and more on the controversial but widespread practice of sending humans into solitary confinement as punishment. Why animals garner more empathy than human incarcerated individuals* is a different discussion, but ending the practice of isolation is overdue in animal sheltering. It’s also overdue in our own homes. How many of us keep single dogs, avoid dog parks or any off-leash social opportunities and then avoid other dogs on leash? It’s not uncommon for pet dog owners to end all social opportunities for their dogs because we are terrified of growling and teeth-baring.
Taking into account individual differences, including the truly gamebred, fearful and abused former fighting dogs (these are pretty rare in my experience), ones who have an injurious history, and watching for major size differences between potential playmates, our care of dogs needs to include caring for their social needs.
When appropriate, making exceptions when indicated, company of the animals’ own kind can help address this need. This may involve stepping aside altogether and trusting dogs’ innate and developed social abilities, tempering our hubris that we always know better, can predict the future, or can protect a dog from all negative interactions for their lifetime.
We must acknowledge there is a risk of injury, and even death, but the risks of isolation are currently more widespread. It is completely possible that by over-managing social exposures between dogs with leashes and punishment, we are creating aggression where there would have been none. Or, that we are creating more risk of injury by taking away a dog’s ability to have a normal aggressive and ritualized display of discomfort and need for space.
I’m looking forward to more research on how to best referee dog-dog interactions. Until then, my current recommendations for shelters and the pet guardians that make up my clientele are to challenge our fears of seeing and hearing aggressive displays (or social confrontations settled by the use of behavioral rituals), and yes, to largely “let them work it out.”
*While this article describes fictional characters, it has been edited to reflect person-first language. "Incarcerated individual" is preferred over words like "inmate" and "prisoner." For a study on why language matters, see Tran, et al. 2018.