Are my dogs depressed?
November 18, 2023 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm concerned about my Golden Retrievers. I have a 9-year-old boy (Bear), and a girl (Abbey) who's almost two. I've spent a lot of time learning about canine body language and facial expressions, and I feel like both dogs are usually sad when indoors. However, the key word here is "feel" - obviously, my read of their emotions is affected by my own mood, and I'm currently diagnosed as severely depressed. I'd like some objective opinions on whether my dogs are okay, plus (ideally) ways to help them if they aren't.

I know dogs sleep a lot, but these two sleep 90% of the time (when we're home). When they aren't sleeping, Abbey will sometimes watch the world go by from the window. She seems interested in that. Bear mostly just snoozes and watches us from one of his beds. He is in heaven when he gets cuddled, but he doesn't really come up to ask for that, so I worry that I don't think to do it enough. I also worry very much that both dogs are desperate for mental stimulation. I know about clicker training, dummy work, and how much fun training classes can be. I just do not have anything left after a bit of work, dragging myself into a shower, and getting the dogs' basic needs taken care of.

They get around ninety minutes of walking in the forest every day, sometimes more, and rarely much less. This part of the day, they love. They are usually off-leash or on long lines for the walks and they do a lot of sniffing. We often play fetch or search games on walks and they swim in the nearby river regularly, too. Occasionally (maybe once a week), we take them to see family. They get a puzzle toy every other day or so, often frozen Kongs. We're home with them a lot since the pandemic started, but they do spend around 5 hours home alone fairly regularly and don't seem to mind that.

Some specific points I'm worried about:

- they don't play together. They used to, when Abbey was younger, but it's stopped completely.
- Bear doesn't want to play with us indoors, either
- they in general do not really ask for what they need. It's possible to forget that they need dinner. My past dogs would always beg until they were fed.
- they have very little canine contact except for visiting friends maybe once a month. Bear doesn't seem to need it, but Abbey does. I'd like to find some friends for her, but it's tricky because we live in a very rural setting. Dog parks are not a thing.
- for her age, Abbey is very serious. She doesn't goof around, play-wrestle with me, or destroy things. She seems timid a lot. I think she might be scared because I get panic attacks. She's never experienced violence, but stuff like sobbing and heavy breathing can be very scary too. I'm working hard on getting better so she can feel safe.
- just in general...what are dogs supposed to do? I believe they're smart creatures. They need to sleep 16 hours or so, fine. Another couple of hours is taken up by walks and feeding time. But that leaves six hours of nothing. They must be so bored. I feel guilty that I don't have a yard for them to "guard", or more energy to play with them/cuddle/plan outings.

Do these dogs sound depressed to you? If not, why not? If yes, do you have tips to cheer them up? Or is it time for a vet visit?
posted by PurpleDragon to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: No they don't sound depressed to me - it sounds like Abbey's grown up a bit. The things that you're identifying as "withdrawal", in particular for Abbey, are things that my dog stopped doing after about two years. Basically he grew up, and a lot of the puppy energy that went with it went away. In some ways it was kind of sad because I really enjoyed the playfulness, but he turned into a very lowkey friend.

Honestly, 90 minutes of walking time a day sounds great and they sound like you're doing a great job taking care of them. One thing to keep in mind is that dogs do have personalities, and some are happy to be really pretty laid back and to hang out. Others are more rambunctious, but it sounds like either they're more on the laidback side of things, or the exercise you're giving them is enough.

You said that they don't beg for food. This was also the case with my dog, or at least he didn't beg for kibble. Human food, treats, those sorts of things he would beg for. You may be doing a better job training yours. If they're eating food when it's offered for the most part, this doesn't seem like something that would be too much of a matter of concern.
posted by phack at 1:05 PM on November 18 [13 favorites]

Best answer: These sound like calm, non-anxious, and (absolutely this is related!) well-exercised dogs. They seem to trust they're going to have their needs met.

Most dogs are generally built for this: short bursts of exercise and a lot of time in Standby Mode. Keeping an eye on you is actually work, to a dog.

It does sound like Abbey is a little on the timid side, and sometimes that's a facet of inter-canine relationship dynamics. It might be interesting to try taking her somewhere without him, or one of you take Bear elsewhere and the other stay and interact with her. You may have to do this in a pattern for a while to see what she does, but if over a bit of time it seems like she comes out of her shell it might be worth making those Bear-free sessions an ongoing activity. (This may also be a good idea based on the age difference - you want to know NOW if she's distressed or anxious without him, and get her used to that experience in advance of his senior years.)
posted by Lyn Never at 1:34 PM on November 18 [9 favorites]

Best answer: These sound like very relaxed, happy and well cared for dogs and really don't sound like dogs that are "desperate for mental stimuation". A bored dog tends to be destructive and a stressed dog will often start having other problematic behaviours like excessive barking. 90 minutes of forest walking every day, especially off-leash, is amazing and most dogs get far less high-quality time than that. Most people don't spend vast amounts of time entertaining their dogs - just spending time together is enough after you satisfy their needs for exercise and mental stimulation (which it sounds like you're doing very thoroughly).

Not wanting to play indoors is normal (and this tendency to see the home as a space to relax rather than play is often deliberately trained/encouraged). Not wanting to play with other dogs is normal, especially as a dog grows out of puppyhood. If Abbey enjoys it, playdates can be nice, but not all dogs need this. Dog parks are too stressful for many dogs so don't worry about not having those.
posted by randomnity at 1:41 PM on November 18 [15 favorites]

Best answer: These sound like happy, relaxed and well exercised golden retrievers. Our 8 year old golden will occasionally pick up a toy and ask for a tussle indoors but I generally take that as a sign she has not had enough outdoor stimulation or attention that day. She also lost interest in playing much with other dogs around the age of 2.

This is precisely the temperament they were bred for - sitting quietly and contentedly in a hunting blind for hours until they were needed to retrieve a bird. You sound like you have done an excellent job raising your dogs. Thank you for taking such good care of them, not everyone does.
posted by arha at 3:31 PM on November 18 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I'll add that it's my understanding that it is easier and more instructive to look for signs of anxiety rather than depression in dogs. They don't express themselves the way we do. Excessive panting, licking, or being out of the ordinary destructive would be concerning. As would extreme lethargy and refusal of food or exercise, which does not look like it's the case.

Not begging for meals is just good manners. They sound like lovely dogs.
posted by arha at 3:51 PM on November 18 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Depression is a vicious beast. It is amazing that you are taking such good care of your dogs while battling with this thing! When I’m particularly struggling with my own depression I definitely project that onto my pets and even my human friends. Do your dogs have a walker or other person that they do these forest walks and other things with? I would ask that person to tell you how they think the dogs are doing. Depression lies and distortion is real; someone who your dogs trust and love is probably someone you can trust to tell you the truth.

If you’re the one doing these walks, that’s so amazing! You are doing exactly what a professional would suggest you do for your mental health - walks in nature with dogs are so annoyingly therapeutic, it’s like how everyone recommends breathing techniques for panic and it’s infuriating when that actually works. Stick with it if you can, or if you aren’t the one doing the walks, see if you can sometimes tag along for part of one. This will help to gauge your dogs’ emotional well-being and see them engaged and stimulated, to balance out your knowledge of them in home mode.

It sounds like your dogs are very well trained. If you want to be more snuggly with them at home, have you made sure that they know what snuggle spots they are allowed to be in? Like, maybe you were a no dogs on the bed person, but that’s changed and now you wish your dogs would snuggle on the bed with you? Sometimes smart dogs make connections really fast and we don’t realize it until much later why they do the things they do. Could you do something like start a routine of daily snuggle time with Bear at a regular time in the evening?

For Abbey, it sounds like she just enjoys her space and being relaxed at home now that she is grown. Since you live in a rural area, are there small farms nearby with pet livestock? Dogs can be friends with cows, donkeys, chickens, all kinds of creatures! She might love to meet some barn cats or sniff a bunch of goats. It’s not doggy dare care or nothing. It sounds like you live with another person, and they might have the energy to reach out to neighbors and bring Abbey around for introductions and occasional field visits.
posted by Mizu at 5:25 PM on November 18 [10 favorites]

Best answer: If it’s been a while since you’ve been to the vet, a visit wouldn’t hurt, just for peace of mind. I was almost certain my Annie was depressed or lonely around this time last year, and it turned out to be anemia. (She’s doing great now.)
posted by mochapickle at 5:53 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Friend, 90 minutes in a forest each day on a long leash or off-leash is every dog's dream. They have each other. They have you. These dogs want to be with their people, which is to say, each other and you. They are so well-taken care of. I know you're in a rut. I did not realize that when you said "basic needs," you meant 90 minutes each day in the woods. That is amazing. I'm so glad your dogs have you! And you them.

I will gently say that I think you are projecting your emotions and depression onto them. You take wonderful care of them.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:02 PM on November 18 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Agreeing with everyone else that your dogs sound calm, relaxed and extremely well cared for. You are an excellent dog parent to be taking such good care of them when you are also struggling with your mental health. Forest adventures, swims, games while walking, 90min of exercise, cuddles, only 5 hours alone and not every day (many dogs are left for much longer), multiple beds and windows to watch the world go by, plus a pack of canine and human family members… this is a wonderful life for a dog! Not to mention you are clearly a very conscientious and compassionate person to be observing them so closely and pondering so deeply about their happiness. If you feel they do not “ask” for what they need, perhaps this is because you are already providing it?

Please keep doing what you’re doing, and while you’re doing it, remind yourself: “I am enough. This is enough. I am caring for my pups and giving them a good life.” And remember, sometimes, sitting in companionable silence together, with a full belly and a warm rug, can be one of the joys of sharing your life with a dog. Depression can steal those simple pleasures from us; I hope you can enjoy them again together soon.
posted by Weng at 10:35 PM on November 18 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, long rambling post. TL;DR: I feel relieved, grateful, and floored by all this kindness.

Seriously. Thank you so much. For all the dark places on the internet, it's truly amazing that strangers will take time out of their day just to reassure a random person. I feel a lot better, really. I even felt sort of proud today, on our walk. It is often very difficult to get myself out there, and I guess what I consider "basic needs" is maybe already enough of an achievement, under the circumstances?

I also realized the walk probably actually is a lot of mental stimulation, with all the smells. Do you guys think that could be true? To me, walking in the woods is relaxing, not exactly mentally stimulating. But the forest must be a lot "richer" if you can tell where all the rabbits and foxes are hanging out.

Thanks to everyone who answered for helping me feel some relief. In particular, it helped to hear

- that my dogs probably just have chill personalities. That tracks, with their breed. Plus, their parents were also pretty calm
- that keeping an eye on us is "work". That makes sense. I guess it's part of what they're bred for. Not Goldens specifically, but just dogs
- that bored dogs are likely to be destructive or otherwise make known that they need more stimulation
- how good the forest walks are for them. I guess I can see that now. It's, like, exactly where they're meant to be. I started thinking today that if I could feel truly fulfilled and enjoy my very favorite hobby once a day, I also might be fine to just chill the rest of the time
- that playing indoors or with other dogs is something older dogs just don't necessarily do
- that sitting in a hunting blind without becoming antsy is a necessary skill for Retrievers. Not only did that reassure me, but it also made me think that it might be fun, sometimes, to go out for a walk and then spend some time stationary, watching for wildlife. I think we would all enjoy that.
- that it might be a better plan to keep an eye out for signs of anxiety. As of right now, the dogs don't do any licking/panting/whining/etc.
- that I might have trained them to be patient and wait for meals and walks, and/or that they trust they'll be taken care of. I did try to reward patient behavior when they were puppies. And they are very trusting in general.
- that this is enough. That I'm doing enough.

Thanks for also giving me some ideas for my specific worries:

- Bear-free sessions will be tried out. Thinking about animal interactions, though, it might be the cat who's making Abbey cautious.
- I'm the one who does most walks, but my boyfriends does some. I can ask him for his thoughts. I know, actually, that he thinks the dogs are doing great. I can try to believe him.
- snuggle time with Bear is a great idea. Providing more structure around snuggle spots is smart, too. Bear probably just needs a bit of encouragement to come snuggle where I am
- love the idea of farm animals as enrichment for Abbey. A neighbor has chickens and goats. We can go visit them and ask if some goats would like to say hi. Maybe even chickens. Abbey doesn't have much of a prey drive and would probably be fine around them
- we're seeing the vet in a month. If I'm still worried then, I'll ask specifically about possibilities like anemia. But for right now, there's a bit of hopefulness in me and I feel peaceful with these very good and sleeping dogs beside me.

Many of your answers made me cry, but in a good way. I really appreciate your wisdom and kindness.
posted by PurpleDragon at 5:16 PM on November 20 [5 favorites]

Hey PurpleDragon. I’m so pleased you got some love and reassurance from this thread. You’re doing great.

In regards to your question about smells providing lots of stimulation- yes they do. I read somewhere (sorry no citation) that intense sniffing is equivalent in terms of enrichment to twice as much time on a regular walk. For some walks, I like to take my dog on a “sniffari” where he is allowed to choose whichever scent he follows and smell as long as he likes, which is often a surprisingly long time. It’s very slow going and might be logistically hard to do with two dogs. But it makes us both pretty happy. The route doesn’t need to be anywhere special, we just wander along a suburban footpath. Here is a helpful summary of a sniffari. You could even send them on a mini sniffari at home with a scattering of kibble in the grass (or carpet).
posted by Weng at 12:50 AM on November 24

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