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Image by Patrick Hendry

The many facets of their external world. Where they live (house, apartment, country, city, etc.) and what they are exposed to (sights, smells, sounds, others they live with). What enrichment is available to them and what physical boundaries they live within.

- Kelly Whittington

Dog Life Hack #2: Arrange their environment to maximize your dog's potential!  

Quick Summary
  • Natural Selection creates animals perfectly suited to the environment. Artifical selection by people might or might not.

  • Our dogs are captive animals.

  • Captive animals need environmental enrichment to have healthy behaviors. 

  • Enriched environments actually change the physiology of a dog's brain!

  • Not every dog is a 'dog park dog'.

  • Dogs can learn bad habits from a poorly managed environment.

  • An E. (Environment) problem can't be fixed with L. (Learning / Training)

Nature Creates Animals Genetically Suited to the Environment

Genes that help an animal survive in their environment are passed to their offspring. Weak genedie out because those animals don't live long enough to reproduce. In the Arctic, many animals are white because it acts as camouflage in the snow (polar bears, arctic foxes, arctic hares, snowy owls, etc.). White fur wouldn't be as beneficial in the desert. The process of genes changing over time to best suit the environment is called Natural Selection.

The Carolina Dog is an example of a Naturally Selected dog. They are the wild dog of the Carolinas. A handful of breeders are keeping the breed going. They are interesting animals with behaviors that are very different from other dogs!

carolina dog.jpg

Most dogs in our society are Artificially Selected. People instead of Nature determine which genes are passed on. Those genes may or may not be well-suited for the dog's environment. Northern breeds struggle with the S.C heat, and cropped coated dogs like Boxers and Dobermans are not built for the cold. Many breeds are not well-suited to live full-time outdoors, and some would prefer not to live full-time indoors. Nature would not create dogs with coats that don't keep them warm in winter or pink skin that burns in the sun, but LGDs (livestock guardian dogs) thrive living outdoors with their livestock.

Environment Shapes Behavior

Natural Selection also shapes Behavior. A Giraffe laying down is more likely to become a lion snack than a Giraffe standing up, so Giraffes rarely lay down. They use their considerable height to spot predators in the distance, and they notice everything!


Animals in captivity don't behave exactly like free ones. In zoos, Giraffes lay down more often because there are no predators to worry about! Tigers don't pace back and forth in the wild like they do in zoos.  Zoos were the first to fully realize the impact of environment on behavior. The animals were not thriving and failed to reproduce. That changed when they redesigned the animals' habitats to better mimic their natural ones and introduced enrichment programs to give them ways to express normal behaviors

Most of the world's dogs are still free-range (~80%), but most dogs in Western society are captive animals. Spending hours a day on couches is not natural behavior for many dogs (some, it suits just fine). Like zoo animals, when a dog's environment isn't suited for them, they will fail to thrive and develop maladaptive behaviors to help them cope.

Josephine, the Captive Labrador

Josephine was a young Labrador who lived in a small house with no fenced yard. Her family wasn't active and only walked her long enough to use the bathroom. She was surrendered to rescue because she barked too much, relentlessly jumped on people, and chewed the furniture and carpet. 

She was adopted by a family who lived on a dozen acres in the woods with a large pond. Josephine's favorite activity was diving off the dock into the water to retrieve a bumper, one of her genetically driven behaviors. She went on long hikes in the woods daily. Not only did the barking, jumping, and furniture chewing stop, Josephine became a service dog for her adopter and the subject of her first book. 

Dog Swimming

It starts before they are even born!

If you want to go down the rabbit hole, and it gets pretty deep, google 'inherited epigenetics'. Fearful and anxious dispositions are passed from mother to puppies. If mom is in a stressful environment when she's pregnant, her stress hormones are passed to her puppies. If she's not getting enough nutrition, her puppies will be born prepared to survive food shortage. This is why it's important to meet the mom when getting a puppy from a breeder. If she's anxious and fearful, chances are your puppy will be, too.

Stark, barren, and unchanging environments limit brain growth. Puppies born in a puppy mill where they stay 24/7 in cages with no enrichment or socialization will be maladjusted dogs. The same is true for babies born in neglectful orphanages. They become maladaptive adults. (Early neglect alters kids' brains)

Experiments on kittens (thankfully no longer done) found that if they were in an environment with no vertical or horizontal lines in the first few weeks of life, they literally can't see them later on. Once critical periods of brain development close, there is no getting it back. No amount of training/learning will recover it. Some of the more excellent breeders follow programs such as Puppy Culture to start exposure training early, in the critical period of brain development.


Even without the ideal environment for your dog, you can make it work better for them. Dogs NEED to use their brain, to solve problems, and to be challenged. You can actually change the physiology of your dog's brain by making their environment more interesting, stimulating, challenging, and variable. Read this short article about how that works and for lots of enrichment ideas. Group training classes give your dog invaluable exposure to novel sights, sounds, smells, and situations. 

Field Trips

I don't live on a dozen acres with a pond, but we took our late Chocolate Lab to swim in the river every Sunday in summer. Lauren takes her Doberman hiking and biking. Lugar goes almost everywhere with Dawn, and Farrah hangs out with me at a local brewery. Conrad is well-traveled and has even gone on a manatee boat tour with Kim. Dogs enjoy a change of scenery!

Not every dog is a "dog park dog". In fact, most dogs aren't dog park dogs. Dogs are social but selective (mmm... a lot like people!). They have different play styles that don't always mesh. Some personalities clash or they just plain don't like that guy! Some dogs at Soda City are MISERABLE there. It's sad to see a shy, introverted dog forced into a crowd of people.


If your dog is shy and introverted or reactive (lunging and snarling) toward other dogs on leash, maybe they would enjoy a car ride where they can watch the world from the safety of the vehicle. Kelly's late AHT loved riding in the golf cart around Pirateland where he could people watch, but nobody could try to touch him. Find a quiet spot in a park to sit and people watch. 

Some dogs have an absolute need to run off-leash. If you live in an apartment or otherwise don't have access to a safe, fenced yard then check out the app SniffSpot. You can rent someone else's yard for a few hours. Or, look for an unused tennis court that is fenced in. Set up a playdate with someone who has a dog with a play style that matches your dog's. (Network with your classmates!) Or, take your dog to a well-run Daycare. Well-run daycares have supervised play, match dog groups by play style, and have periods of rest so dogs don't become overstimulated. We recommend Sutton's Southern Pet Retreat. If there are no fenced options, use a long line to give them room to run and romp. 

Environmental Management

No matter what, a dog is learning from their environment. Not Managing the environment is leaving it to chance, and we might not like the results. Training to Sit, Down, etc. will not "fix" or change an environment problem. An E. (Environment) problem can't be fixed with L. (Learning / Training). Dogs can learn bad habits from an unmanaged environment.

Crates, x-pens, baby gates, trash can locks, window film, visual fence barriers, belly bands, gate locks, muzzles, tethers, and leashes are the canine equivalent of cabinet and toilet lid locks, furniture anchors, outlet covers, cribs, playpens, and bouncy seats for toddlers. As they mature and learn good habits, less management is needed... like cabinet locks can be removed as your toddler matures (maybe brought back out for the liquor cabinet when they're teens) :D.

Examples of Environmentally Shaped Unwanted Behavior

Fiona was adopted as a puppy. When home alone, she stayed in a fenced yard beside a busy road. Fiona entertained herself by chasing passing cars down the fence line - all day, every day. She was returned to the rescue at a year old because her car-chasing habit was so bad that they couldn't take her for a walk.  

Pooh Bear was surrendered to rescue because he kept digging out of the fence, and the owners were facing fines by Animal Control. In his foster home, he never dug out of the fence. The difference was that he was an only dog and he was bored before, but his foster home had other dogs to play with. 

Not every dog will learn to chase cars by watching them go by her yard or dig out of a fence because he's got no one to play with. But, for these dogs, the environment wasn't right for their particular needs. These are examples of times when controlling the ENVIRONMENT is more beneficial for resolving the issue than controlling the DOG. 

The 5 Freedoms
of Animal Welfare

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

  2. Freedom from Discomfort

  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease

  4. Freedom to express Normal Behavior

  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Brambell's five freedoms have been adopted as the basic standard in zoos, farms, and animal shelters.

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