Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Tower of London in the UK. Built in the 1200s, the Tower of London is a vast castle that served various purposes, including housing prisoners, soldiers, their families, protecting the Thames, storing treasures, and, more recently, hosting millions of tourists. Early in the history of the Tower, a popular gift among royalty was exotic animals. If you were the King of a small kingdom and found a Camel while on a Crusade, you might capture it and ship it home as a curiosity. If you had a close relationship with the neighboring king, you might gift the Camel to them as a sign of your regard. Exotic animals such as gibbons and other primates, ostriches, alligators, and even a warthog were part of this steady trade. Lions, leopards, hyenas, and snakes that occasionally attempted to eat their keepers were also common residents. There were even some species that we can’t accurately identify. (I’m quite certain the described unicorn didn’t actually exist, but perhaps a narwhal found its way into one of these menageries?) By studying the 600-year history of animals kept in the Tower of London, we can gain valuable insights into our own practices with the dogs we work with.
Two species that made their way into the Tower of London’s history – a Polar Bear and an Elephant – can teach us important lessons about how we care for animals today. The Polar Bear was a gift from the King of Norway, and the Elephant was a gift from the King of France. It’s crucial to note that the rarity of these animals made them great attractions, and little was known about them when they arrived at the Tower.
The Polar Bear, once at the Tower of London, was added to the already extensive menagerie. It was offered a variety of food, including beer and wine, and was even allowed to swim in the Thames, “on a stout rope,” where it would catch and eat fish. This likely helped it survive in an environment not particularly friendly to polar bears. By fishing for itself, it diversified its diet and obtained the necessary calories for survival. In fact, it lived for many years and became a highly popular exhibit.
However, the Elephant had a much less fortunate experience. It was confined in a small wooden enclosure, likely around 20 by 40 feet, within the 13th-century castle. Regardless of how generous the enclosure was for an elephant in those times, it’s clear that the elephant’s need to move over significant distances daily was not met. Unlike the Polar Bear, which accidentally had some of its needs met through swimming in the river, the elephant likely never left its confinement.
Another issue the elephant faced was a lack of knowledge about its dietary requirements. According to what I learned at the Tower of London, it was primarily fed beer and wine. Predictably, it lost weight and eventually died, most likely due to malnutrition. The lack of an enriched environment, the absence of companionship with other elephants, and the lack of exercise all contributed to its early demise, with malnutrition being the most significant factor.
So, what do these historical accounts teach us about the dogs we care about today?
As a behavior consultant in private practice, I often encounter families with dogs whose needs are not being met. Sometimes, these dogs are like “Polar Bears” – their problems can be addressed to provide them with a high quality of life. For instance, a family with a Labrador retriever may need to hire a dog walker or find ways to provide exercise for the dog to address its behavioral issues.
However, in cases where there’s a large, dangerously aggressive dog in the hands of someone with physical limitations, living in an environment with many people, it’s not surprising that the dog becomes an “Elephant,” confined more than is healthy and lacking the enrichment it needs. What makes the situation sadder is that the people responsible for these dogs often love them deeply but don’t realize how little they truly understand their needs.
One way families end up with “Elephants” is by not recognizing the difference between an “Elephant” and a “Polar Bear.” I’ve heard experienced families with specific dog breeds that have unique needs claim that their breed is easy to live with and could fit into anyone’s life. But when their sole experience with dogs is a specific breed, they may become overwhelmed when living with a very different breed.
An example of this is a woman I met who used a wheelchair and previously owned medium mixed-breed dogs. She acquired a Dalmatian, thinking it would enjoy walking beside her chair since Dalmatians were bred to follow coaches. She didn’t realize that Dalmatians need extensive exercise and that her Dalmatian’s behavior issues were due to unmet exercise needs. The problems escalated, leading to the dog becoming an “Elephant” in her home.
I worked with this dog during a period when I accepted dogs for board and train. He thrived in the company of my other dogs, and it was eventually decided to rehome him with a more suitable owner. Fortunately, his bites were mostly level one and two and could be traced back to a lack of exercise. In his new home, he had the opportunity for activities like mountain biking and skijoring, along with rally, obedience, and agility training. He became a well-behaved canine citizen.
Another issue that led to problems in the Tower of London was the sheer number of animals housed in the castle at various times, with up to 300 animals from over 60 species living there. Similarly, families with more dogs than they can reasonably care for can run into difficulties.
At one point in my career, I had eleven dogs living with me. Four were my own, and the rest were long-term board and train dogs. My days began at 6 in the morning, letting dogs in and out for toileting, preparing meals, conducting training sessions, and taking groups of dogs for walks. This cycle continued through the day, and I also taught private and group training classes. I reflected on this time and realized that I was on a treadmill, missing family dinners, vacations, and personal time. I didn’t have much time for anything other than meeting my dogs’ needs. While I believe my dogs lived enriched lives, I don’t think it was healthy for me or my husband.
When I see clients with multiple dogs, I often inquire about how they went from one or two dogs to six, eight, or even 21 dogs.
One client, who had 21 dogs, thought living in the countryside would allow her to rescue as many greyhounds as she wanted and brought over 150 of them back from Florida racetracks over five years. The 21 dogs she had when I met her were there for various reasons, such as health issues or a lack of other homes. None of them were selected for compatibility with each other. She initially called me when her dogs started chasing and harming her flock of guinea hens, and when they became unmanageable, she sought help.
By the time I got involved, the dogs had formed a solid hunting pack, which didn’t take well to having their actions thwarted. Although she had kennel runs and farm staff, she had no control. Her situation was somewhat reminiscent of the menagerie at the Tower of London. Her attempts to manage the dogs were based on trial and error. When she had only one greyhound, it would stay close to the house and interact with her and her staff. However, as the number of dogs increased, she installed underground fencing to enclose them within a vast area of hills, fields, and swamps. While the greyhounds enjoyed this space, it led to problems.
Issues began when she had around 14 or 15 dogs. Some dogs started hiding in the hay mow at night, and the entire group would disappear for hours, returning dirty and sometimes injured. Greyhounds were not well suited to the Southern Ontario environment. They also stopped eating regularly, had gastric upsets, and began preying on her guinea hens. I was called in when the dogs killed and consumed a house cat.
Despite her ability to care for 21 dogs, she wasn’t truly keeping them as pets. They became feral, and the only time she saw them all together was when it was cold, and they sought shelter indoors. Several dogs were fighting, and they brought parasites and diseases into her home, affecting other animals and her family. The solution was to reduce the space the dogs had and downsize the group to a more manageable size.
I view this as a mathematical equation: If you can properly care for seven dogs, giving them daily exercise, training, and the necessary care, you can maintain a normal pet-owner relationship.
However, when you’re responsible for more than ten dogs at a time, it’s a significant challenge. You need specialized training and skills to handle the workload. Your days are consumed by feeding, grooming, exercising, training, and repeating. Most people who successfully keep more than ten dogs focus on a specific breed and train all of them for various purposes.
In 1826, the Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington, decided it was impractical to maintain a menagerie of wild animals in a fortification meant to protect the City of London. He sent the remaining 150 animals to what would become the London Zoo. This history teaches us to understand our boundaries and limits and practice within them. I now live with two dogs and one pony, while my dressage horse resides at a local stable. When choosing dogs to live with, I keep in mind the “Elephant” analogy. If I don’t know how to care for a certain breed or if I already have enough dogs to meet, then ethically, I shouldn’t take them on. Recognizing a dog’s needs and whether I can meet them is essential.
Lastly, as a behavior professional, I’m open to discussing dogs and, with the caveat that I’m not trained in cat behavior, cats. I avoid giving advice on other species and refer such cases to behavior consultants who are more knowledgeable.