Even though many breeds of dogs were designed to aid humans in some sort of work or daily chore, most of us today see our clever canines primarily as companions. This means there are a lot of out-of-work dogs, which can lead to unhappy consequences that run the gamut from dog-as-nuisance to dog-abandoned-in-shelter.
If being a companion is the new “work” of dogs, what exactly does that job description entail? A few pictures come to mind: dog as sidekick, faithful companion, riding shotgun a la Travels with Charley, loyal guardian, café connoisseur, weekend hiking pal.
Most of the visions of the “ideal dog” today portray him as a relatively sedentary part-time playmate, as if he came equipped with an on-and-off switch.
Unfortunately, it seems there is a big disconnect for most people between what they expect out of their dogs and what they get. After 20 years in the dog training biz and lots of conferring with colleagues, the general consensus is that what most people really want from their dogs is the absence of behavior. The number one question dog owners have when they come to a class or a private consult is, “How do I get my dog to stop…?” (insert behavior that is a human nuisance).
It’s kind of sad, really. There is so much that we want a dog not to do. Even people with specific breed preferences are annoyed with standard breed traits! For example, people may think the Border Collie is beautiful, just the right size, super-bright, and therefore oh-so-cool. A must-have companion! Yet many of these same people are subsequently overwhelmed by their Collies’ need for mental stimulation and directed exercise, not to mention their hyper-vigilance (e.g. barkiness or general reactivity). We get these wonderful square pegs and then are puzzled and frustrated when they don’t fit into the round holes of our lifestyles and home environments.
To paraphrase the brilliant biologist Ray Coppinger, we humans have spent a long time perfecting certain behavior patterns in dogs (such as the desire to herd) and now spend lots of money and time attempting to stifle these same highly-specialized, long-desired, and deliberately-bred behaviors.
If what you’re looking for is a companion dog, please choose very carefully. Don’t gloss over breed descriptions with a romantic gleam in your eye. Take a long hard look at your lifestyle, tolerance, time, and financial budget before you get a dog. Don’t get a working breed if you don’t plan on working your dog, just don’t.
Be honest with yourself. If you want an easy-going canine lounger do some research and find one. Consider an adult rescue from a reputable source or, better yet, bring a senior dog into your home. Seasoned canines often make the mellowest companions. There are many lovely adult and senior dogs out there needing homes who are ready-made for just hanging out, walking to the park, or accompanying you to coffee shops.
If you simply must get a certain breed because you love it so, or if you already have a furry workaholic in your midst, be sure to hold up your end of the bargain and provide appropriate outlets for your canine specialist. Simply quashing behavior is not an acceptable solution. Rephrase the question from, “How do I stop this behavior?” to “How can I best channel this instinct?” Marvel at your dog’s skills and channel them!
Also, may I remind you that teaching and reinforcing what you want, rather than punishing behavior you don’t want, is the very best cure for crowding out unwanted activity.
Provide plenty of exercise, because it’s good for both of you and, yes, a tired dog is a good dog. But also teach your dog how to be a good companion dog. Teach long, patient, café-ready down-stays, teach your dog to go to his bed and chill, teach your dog how to love being alone while you’re at work by leaving her home with a plethora of projects via food-extracting toys. Your dog will thank you for the job and your bond will improve immensely now that your interactions don’t revolve around scolding and squelching.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program, and is in the process of bringing the French sport of cavage (truffle hunting) to the US. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults on various matters.