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Give Your Dog a Job

Does your dog laze around all day, chasing sunny spots on the floor, or occasionally amble over to the overstuffed toy box and select the perfect toy for her mood, then bat it around lazily in an almost, dare I say, catlike fashion? Does she spend hours gazing out of the window from a comfy spot on the sofa watching the world go by?

Alternately, is your dog bummed when you leave for your daily grind? Does she seem visibly deflated and resigned? Or worse, does your dog spend a lot of time digging outside in your yard? Is she pacing your fence line, just waiting for that nemesis squirrel to run down that tree? Do your neighbors tell you they know when you’re gone because your pup barks or cries a lot when you aren’t home?

In other words, is your dog unemployed?

The pages of this issue of Bay Woof are filled with dogs doing important work in the world. These dogs are focused and on task. They love their lives and go to sleep sated every night. There is satisfaction in a job well done. There is a certain peace in putting in an honest day’s work; of expressing one’s inner talents. You make think these working dogs are a breed apart (pun intended). I am here to tell you that your dog is no different then the ones that grace these pages.

I’ve said before, I strongly believe all dogs need jobs. And while that has always been true, it seems it’s more important now than ever before. As technology becomes ever more entrancing and nearly anything we want or need can be delivered to our doorstep from the palm of our hand, people are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. We tend to zone out and stay in; this does a great disservice to our canine companions.

All dogs were designed by humans to serve a purpose. Even lapdogs that languished in the lap of luxury with the elite spent nearly all day with their human counterparts rather than merely an hour or two in the evening, as most do now. Unfortunately, the majority of dog-jobs have become obsolete. So as dogs’ lives become more artificial and sedentary, it is up to us to find new ways to keep them
busy.

Giving your dog a daily task, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. This task need not be as glorious as the old standbys such as bringing in the newspaper every morning, or retrieving your slippers in the evening; but actually tasks like that are fabulous goals that will take several weeks to fully train, will make your dog feel useful and give him some rewardable way to contribute every day. Dogs thrive on ritual, so these sorts of regular activities give them a sense of security and something to look forward to daily. I recently saw a sweet video of a dog fetching his own collar, leash, and raincoat on cue, in preparation for his daily walk. His excitement was palpable, a joy to behold! However, more impressive to me was the level of training and the great communication which had been established between the dog and his owner. Clearly both enjoyed this little ritual very much.

Another fun game that later becomes useful is teaching your dog the names of all of your family members and how to find them. This is an easy task to start with endless applications. To begin, simply have everyone stand in a circle and as one person hold the dog’s collar, they will tell the dog to “go to Sally” at which point Sally happily calls the dog, rewards her for coming, and starts the process all over again with another family member. As you progress, the circle gets wider and eventually can become a game of hide and seek. Super fun!

If you can’t teach your dog a task, an alternative is to provide lots of species-appropriate environmental enrichment. Actually, it is a very good idea to provide enrichment activities, even if you do give your dog a job. The easiest way to do this is to banish your food bowl. Toss it out, seriously. Or at least put it away, high up in a cabinet only for use on rare occasion. Rather than feed your dog’s daily ration in a boring old bowl, only to be devoured in most cases in seconds flat, instead put your dog’s meals in food dispensing toys. There are puzzle toys and chew toys made for this purpose. Mealtime should be a 20- to 40-minute event, not a guzzle-and-go moment. You can also spread your dog’s eating throughout the day, so that he or she grazes rather than gorges. Hollow rubber toys are excellent for this purpose. If your dog is quietly focusing on a project at least twice a day, he or she, too, can be as sated in the evening as an officially employed hound. And as the saying goes, a tired dog is a good dog.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

Main article photo by: William Prost-Creative Commons