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Good Dog: Balancing Act – Your Dog Needs a Job

Most evenings as we settle down to read or watch TV, Jim or I give Otis something to chew. She has many favorites from what I call the “carnage aisle” of the pet store, such as beef kneecaps, bully sticks, and marrowbones.

But before Otis gets her nightly chew treat, I always have her perform one or two of her many tricks, such as rolling over or weaving figure 8s between my legs. I then have her sit/stay while I hide the chew treat and release her to sniff it out. Otis finds all of this oh so fun and engaging. She then lies happily at my feet, gnawing away at the item of the evening.

Recently, overwhelmed with household duties, I got lazy and failed to ask Otis to perform a task in return for her chew. Instead, I called her over, set a bully stick on the floor and walked away. I didn’t give it another thought until a few minutes later when I reentered the living room only to find Otis sitting in the same position with a concerned look on her face, the bully stick in front of her, untouched and unloved. I quickly realized my mistake: I had not asked her for “payment” for the bully stick! Because I had not had her work for her chew, it had little value and she was uninterested, never mind confused as to why our fun nightly routine had been interrupted.
In short, I had forgotten that nothing in life is free.

There are many reasons to ask your dog to work for anything of value – be it toys, dinner, treats, chews, affection, walks, or play. First and foremost, back-and-forth communication is what sets dogs apart from every other species on earth. Only dogs arrive in this world with an innate understanding of human body language and gestures, and we do a great disservice when we do not allow them to master these skills. Every time you teach your dog a new behavior – anything from a simple sit to a complex behavior chain such as retrieving a beer from the refrigerator – you deepen your relationship by increasing your shared vocabulary.

As Brian Hare points out in his excellent new book The Genius of Dogs, only dogs innately understand how to follow our gaze and our pointing fingers. Wolves cannot do this, nor cats, nor chimpanzees, nor dolphins. Dogs are fantastically evolved to learn and understand our body language and gestures, and to quickly learn new behaviors via repetition and training. It is therefore our responsibility to teach our dogs new things throughout their lives, to challenge their minds as well as their bodies, so as to mitigate canine boredom that so often manifests as behavior problems.

While dogs are not wolves – having domesticated themselves somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago – they do retain many of the behavior traits and needs of their forebears. One reason I urge my clients to teach their dogs new tricks and to use these behaviors as “payment” for dinner, for example, is that their wolf ancestors had to work to survive; that instinct is not extinct. Too often we shower our dogs with everything they could ever possibly want or need – food, clothes, toys, affection – and yet do not ask anything in return, perhaps thinking that we’re being generous and kind. But this does not create a balanced canine mind. Like children showered with everything and asked for nothing, dogs can needlessly become unappreciative, bored, and ungrateful brats.

There are other reasons to use the “nothing in life is free” strategy throughout your dog’s life. For one, it sets up every interaction as a training opportunity and a chance to continually reinforce desired behaviors. Instead of only asking your dog to play dead during training sessions or to impress your friends, use it in return for a car ride or a belly rub. Believe me, your dog will appreciate that car ride more if she’s earned it.

As Otis so clearly told me with that concerned expression and untouched bully stick, value comes with work, work creates balance, and balance is key to a happy and fulfilled life, be it human or canine.

Jeff Stallings is a San Francisco-based dog trainer and owner of Better Nature Dog Training. He lives in Diamond Heights with his partner Jim and their dog Otis. More about Jeff at

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Main article photo by: Jim Winters