What is welfare and how does it relate to training and behaviour?

Animal welfare is a very interesting area of science, as it combines both scientific research with an ethical component. There are numerous journals dedicated to the science of animal welfare, as well as journals that look at behaviour. As we’ll discuss in a bit, behaviour plays a huge role in animal welfare.

There are many different definitions of animal welfare, and it’s somewhat dependent on your ethical approach. However one definition that I feel is relatively all-encompassing is from David Fraser and Donald Broom (1990), where they wrote: “Welfare defines the state of an animal as regards its attempts to cope with its environment.”

While animal welfare research began in farm animals, it has huge implications for the dogs that live with us. Some examples of animal welfare research that are important in the dog world include:

  • elective surgeries – most recently ones involving cropping of ears and tails
  • breeding – such as with brachycephalic breeds and the associated health concerns

In the dog training and behaviour field, important ones include:

  • training methodologies
  • how we care for dogs
  • end of life decisions
  • if, and when, we should deal with behaviour problems

An interesting study published in 2020 had over 2000 people complete questionnaires about dog welfare, which they defined as quality of life. Over 95% of respondents selected that they either agreed, or strongly agreed, that the welfare of dogs was important to them. For those that had dogs, they stated that their own dog had ‘high’ or ‘extremely high’ welfare. They ranked the welfare of dogs belonging to other people as lower. (Cobb, Lill & Bennett, 2020)

So, we do know that welfare is important to the general public, and it is likely especially of importance to you working as a pet professional.

What is important when it comes to animal welfare?

There are several ways of looking at animal welfare, and individuals may feel that their ethical perspective guides what they value when looking at welfare. Below are two different ways that have been published that can allow us to look at animal welfare. 

Five Freedoms

In 1964 Ruth Harrison wrote a book called ‘animal machines’ and published it in the Uk. The book was about the treatment of farm animals in intensive production systems at the time, and it quickly caused an outcry in the public. As a response, the British government put together a committee to examine farm animal welfare. This became known as the ‘bramble’ report, after the chair of the committee. From this report, the Five Freedoms were developed. 

  • Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  • Freedom from Discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  • Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from Fear and Distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Many organizations and committees use these freedoms to assess animal welfare, and have developed guidelines or codes of practice based on these.However, it’s important to note that these do not describe the criteria that must be met to achieve an acceptable level of welfare. It’s unrealistic to expect that animals in our care could get complete ‘freedom’ in all of these areas, but it’s a way of identifying welfare problems and gives us a direction to move in to improve welfare.

The ‘three circles’ modelA scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns (Fraser et al., 1997)

Another way that welfare is sometimes examined is based on viewpoints or types of concern about animal welfare. This is often drawn as three circles that overlap one another, or a Venn diagram. This concept was published in the 90s and categorized the way people who work with animals (including researchers, those caring for animals, and the public) look at animal welfare. 

The three views that are most common are (in no particular order):

  • Basic health and functioning
  • Affective states
  • Natural living

(Adapted from Fraser et al., 1997)

An example involving dogs is at the beginning of the publication, which helps to explain how different people can value different aspects of animal welfare, so I’m going to read that out for you:

“Two dog-owners met one day to walk their dogs together. One owner had grown up in a small family that valued health, safety, and orderly, disciplined behaviour. The dog of this owner received regular veterinary care, two meals a day of low-fat dog food, and was walked on a leash. The other owner had grown up in a large community that valued conviviality, sharing of resources and close contact with the natural world. This dog (the owner’s third – the first two had been killed by cars) had burrs in its coat, was fed generously but sporadically, and had never worn a collar in its life. Each owner, judging quality of life from very different viewpoints, felt sorry for the other’s dog.” (Fraser et al., 1997)

This quote really emphasizes the point that we all likely have biases in the way we view animal welfare, and we may not agree with the emphasis another person places on a viewpoint – which comes down the ethical aspect of animal welfare. It’s important to note that neither is necessarily wrong, it’s being viewed from a different perspective.

When looking at these three perspectives, there are important differences:

Basic health and functioning – This concept addresses the physical fitness of the animal, including good health, normal body function, and normal growth and development. It also looks at disease, injury, growth and reproductive problems, or other health concerns that may impact an animal.

Natural living. This part of the circle emphasizes that animals should be able to lead reasonably natural lives. This includes being able to perform important, normal behaviors, develop or grow normally, and to have some natural elements in their environment. 

Affective states. This circle considers the emotional state of the animal in that animals should feel mentally well, decreasing negative emotions and increasing those that are positive. Negative emotions include unpleasant states such as pain, hunger, fear, and distress. Beyond just avoiding the negative, animals should be able to experience positive emotions in the forms of pleasure or contentment (e.g., play or social contact). More subtle emotions such as boredom or frustration also come into play, and could be particularly important for our dogs.

Of note as well, since these three circles overlap, there is often overlap in viewpoints too, and people may look at two of these circles primarily, or even weigh all three as equally important.

In next week’s podcast episode and blog post, there will be a discussion of one other way to look at animal welfare, as well as how to measure animal welfare.


Cobb, M.L., A. Lill & P.C. Bennett. 2020. Not all dogs are equal: perception of canine welfare varies with context. Animal welfare, 29: 27-35.

Fraser, A.F. & D.M. Broom. 1990. Farm animal behaviour and welfare 3rd Ed, CABI, Wallingford.

Fraser, D., D.M. Weary, E.A. Pajor, B.N. Milligan. 1997. A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns. Animal welfare, 6: 187-205.