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Idle Paws…….

I recently watched a National Geographic documentary called Solitary Confinement. It is supposed to be a discussion on whether or not solitary confinement is necessary to control the most severe inmantes, or a form of torture. My views on the humans in the study were conflicted. There seemed to be a legitimate need for some of the inmates to be kept away from other human being, and some situations that truly perplexed me. However, the reason that I am writing about this particular film has less to do with humans than it does another highly social group of animals that weren’t even featured in this movie.

You guessed it, dogs. The setup of super maximum security prisons (Supermax), was surprisingly similar to the setup of a lot of dog shelters I have been to. The inmates could see other inmates every once in a while through small glass windows in the doors of their cells; but were mostly seperated from one another entirely for the duration of their stay. So in summary:

“Out of the more than 20,000 prisoners in the United States, about 2% are currently living in “super maximum security (“supermax”) facilities or units. Prisoners in these facilities typically spend their waking and sleeping hours locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors. A few times a week they are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space. Supermax prisoners have almost no access to educational or recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation and are usually handcuffed, shackled and escorted by two or three correctional officers every time they leave their cells. Assignment to supermax housing is usually for an indefinite period that may continue for years.” (1)

The correlation to dog shelters and kennel situations seems obvious to me. And let me be clear, I have volunteered at the Buffalo City Animal Shelter, I interned at the Erie County SPCA, and I have visited numerous shelters and kennels as a veterinary assistant who had to pick up and drop off deceased animals for cremationat my least favorite job ever, not to mention as a family of dog lovers our family has spent a lot of time in shelters picking out dogs as those are the places our animals come from. I have been in a lot of kennels, but I do not claim to be an expert in running a shelter. I have simply seen their setups and will be making comments about what I have seen.

Some of the inmates in the movie talked about how difficult it is for them to reintegrate into society after being kept in isolation. They are described as feeling very upset by minor changes in their environment, are more likely to act violently, and eventually become shut off from reality and or the consequenses of their behavior. Sometimes preferring bad treatment to no interaction at all. One of the inmates was shown instigating a fight with prison guards for no apparent reason. He later echoed the reasoning of rather having someone beat him, than not having any interaction at all:

“In one complaint filed against the Connecticut Department of Correction in August 2003, social isolation and sensory deprivation drove some prisoners to “lash out by swallowing razors, smashing their heads into walls or cutting their flesh.” (2)

Inmates also talked about how much it pained them to not ever get the chance to exercise outside. Having no interaction with other people is one thing, but they also exercised indoors, and did not get the chance to feel the sun on themselves, or the wind blowing.

A counselor in the SC (Solitary Confinement) progam was interviewed, and talked about how the inmates had ZERO self confidence in themselves.  None of them believed they would be able to make it in society. This is another sentiment I relay to dog owners all the time. When your dog is on the end of a leash lashing out in aggression, more often than any other reason this happens out of fear, and lack of confidence in a multitude of things not excluding the owners handling skills themselves. But I usually see it in dogs that lack confidence in all areas of their lives.

One of the biggest eye openers of this movie in relation to dogs, was a section that covered an experiment done with lab rats. I haven’t been able to find any info on the study, but if one of my 3 readers has any info on it I would be greatly appreciative. The study basicaly confined rats in a similar situation to both SC and a dog shelter for a period of time and studied the rats behavior.  After the rats had been confined for a while where they could see and hear other rats but not interact and create actual relationships, they transferred them to a larger cage with objects such as a small house and some other toys to play with.

The rats behavior was incredible. They behaved in a state of constant hyperalertness, basically pacing the perimiter in frenzied paranoia. They ignored the new objects and the opportunity to stimulate themseves, to only look for potential threats. 

My thoughts are that because rats are very social animals they have learned to survive by distributing the tasks of guarding among one another, and without this safety net to be watching their back they are reduced to constantly watching for predators. This makes me think of something we call, “Kennel Crazy” which I will probably talk about in a future article.

This is also a behavior I see in dogs that have not been socialized ever, or in a long time. I see many leash reactive dogs walking up the street ignoring the sights, sounds, and smells of the outside world, to only be scanning the horizon for a potetial threat. And then address that percieved threat aggressively.

The only convict who seemed normal and connected to reality was a man who spent signifigant amounts of his day meditating. He described using self control, and activly using his mind as the only thing that kept him alive. 

So, back to dogs.

There are a few ideas I think people should take away from this movie:

  1. Don’t be a criminal.
  2. Your dog needs opportunities to be, and become social. As social animals the negative effects of isolation are abundant and clear. Animals that are normally social, and do not have the opportunity to be social will end up paranoid, hyper active, self destructive, and difficult to exist with. Not to mention genuinely unhappy.
  3. Exercise your dog!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As I stated before, I am not a shelter expert; and I do think many shelters are doing everything they can to help dogs (and cats) find a better situation and by no means am I trying to villify or demean what they do. But I do believe there is much that could be done differently. I think having shelter employees educated in how to socialize dogs would be incredibly helpful to the overall quality of life of dogs in shelters. This would ultimately make many of them more adoptable as they would get to interact with other animals on a regular basis, and therefore build useful social skills for the rest of their lives outside of the shelter.

As all creatures do, dogs fear the unknown. And to a dog that has never been around other dogs, or visited new places, everything is unknown. I watched this movie on Netflix, and it is available for instant viewing if you choose to check it out. As always, any questions or comments are welcome!


  1. Supermax Prisons: An Overview
  2. Lonely Madness: The Effects of Solitary Confinement and Social Isolation on Mental and Emotional Health

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  1. Avatar
    Brian Cochran
    April 22, 2017


    Excellent analysis. Thanks for your insight. Roy Roger’s and Trigger’s rendition of – “Don’t Fence me In” says it all.


    Brian and Kelly

  2. Avatar
    Coretta Vermeulen
    April 24, 2017

    Dang, as the 3rd reader I should have references about that lab rat experiment, but I don’t ?. What I do see in my remaining one rat we still have out of 4, is that she chooses to hide all the time, eating at night but skids away whenever there is movement outside here cage. Being in a group of 4, they were more attached to each other then to us humans. So I see your point happening right before my eyes.
    But, a great plea to socially interact under supervision in shelters. Though I read many articles or see clips on youtube that state that interaction might contribute to many problems, I still believe in the power of the pack.

  3. Avatar
    June 11, 2017

    I got my German Shepherd from a kennel. He was 4 months old at that time and was confined there by himself in a kennel. I found one of his ear was bitten. The kennel owner said he was bitten by another dog of the same litter.
    I thought my dog was so mallow as being a puppy. Later, I found out he is very timid and afraid of strange dogs. This is an example of social isolation. He wants to play with other dogs when he sees other dogs play, but he is very mix that he wants to play, but unknown of the whole situation. He might feels threatened suddenly and defends aggressively. I am afraid of he bites them, so I avoid & I am afraid to let my dog interact with other dogs. I am very sad for him. He is 4.5 years old now. In this case, how can I start to get back to my dog social life to palying with other dogs.
    Your advice is very much appreciated.
    Kitty from Vancouver, B.C.


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