As I have stated before, nearly every type of dog that exists today was originally bred to do some sort of task, either with or for humans, or comes from some sort of breed mix of dogs that had working-dog blood flowing through their veins. I am a strong advocate of making sure your dog has a job. To me, finding one for your dog is an integral responsibility of cohabiting with these noble creatures. Dogs were not meant to be idle weekend warriors at our convenience and leisure.
So your role is to not only be your dog’s best friend and caretaker, but also to be his career coach. Now while it does help to do a little research about your dog’s breed-type and natural tendencies before determining just what sort of job your dog would like to do, it is not necessary to buy a flock of sheep just because your dog is a herding breed, for example. Rather, your task is to find a sport or activity that will utilize your dog’s natural abilities in a way that allows him to express himself well enough that he is sated and content all of the long hours of the day when you are otherwise occupied at your own workplace.
The good news is there are lots of fun activities available to you and your dog, both as organized sports or simply interactive toys and games. Barn hunt, earth dog trials, and lure coursing all allow your dog to fulfill his instinct to hunt in an organized and human fashion. There are farms where you can pay to learn how to herd sheep or ducks with your dog. New sports such as dock diving, treibball, and canine nose work are easy to begin, fun to train for, and can be done alone or in a group setting. Even daily fetch or find-it games will enhance your dog’s life and give him purpose. Simply teaching your dog to literally fetch your slippers or the morning paper really does help. I like to teach my dogs the names of my family and friends and have them pass along notes or toys from room to room. Teaching your dog tricks such as putting away his own toys is another fun and helpful option. Canine circus class is a blast for both ends of the leash and keeps your dog’s brain bustling while also keeping your team-training skills and communication sharp and clear. With a little creativity, the list of daily dog jobs is endless and will enhance your relationship with your canine companion.
Now that we’ve got your dog’s work covered, it’s time to move on to your job. It is your responsibility, as the one who initiated this wonderful cross-species relationship, to earn your dog’s attention.
So much heed is paid to making sure a dog listens to his owner’s requests or even worse, obeys. My question to all of my students and to you is, why? Why should your dog listen to you when you ask him to do something, perhaps even something unnatural for him or less inherently entertaining than what he’s naturally inclined to do? (Say, such as … sniffing another dog’s bum, raiding the trash bin, or chasing a squirrel up a tree.) This “why?” is your dog’s question, as a sentient being, as well. Your dog is asking this question every time he or she doesn’t actually follow your request. “What’s my motivation?”
I challenge you to change your thinking and feelings around your dog’s behavior. When you start to get irritated because your dog “isn’t listening” to you or is “being bad,” take a breather and reframe your thought process. Your dog isn’t being willfully disobedient or disrespectful; rather, he’s asking you why he should do as you say, especially if what you’re asking is difficult, boring, or in direct conflict with what a dog might actually naturally rather do. Your goal is to be the kind of leader a dog wants to follow. Dogs are not mindless robots or slaves; dogs are unique, highly intelligent, and empathetic creatures with minds of their own. We are privileged in that they enjoy our company. The best way to show you’re worthy of leadership is to be deserving of your dog’s consideration. This means reinforcing behaviors you’d like him to perform promptly and reliably with life-rewards. It means being animated and interesting when your are calling your dog away from something that has his attention. Don’t call for him in a commanding voice; call in a convincing tone. Who would you rather go to, a shouting person with an angry grimace and arms crossed, or a smiling and laughing person who is having way too much fun over there and is inviting you to play chase and tickle or is the keeper of the best toys and treats? Pro tip: make being around you a joy and you will be rewarded with rapt attention and deep affection. This goes for all sentient beings in your life, by the way, humans included.
It is an honor to share our lives with dogs. Let’s do our best to give as much respect as we ask of them and to be worthy of their devotion.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains the instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program. She also is founder and president of Open Paws and consults on various matters.
Main article photo by: Dmitriy K.-CC