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Stop to Smell the Fire Hydrants

Recently, while chilling at a coffee shop sipping my latte, I noticed how many people were there with their constant companion; their tried and true friend that’s always by their side, only an arm’s reach away.

Nearly everyone was thoroughly engaged with their little buddy, whether or not they were there with other people, barely noticing the things going on around them in the bustling city atmosphere. You might think that this scene would warm my heart, but it didn’t. That’s because you might also think when I say everyone had a sidekick that I am referring to their canine companions, but I am not. Nearly every single person at the cafe was staring into his phone — even those who had a darling doggy sitting there, gazing up at them hopefully.

Sure, it’s a coffee shop, a place to unwind and take a break. Perhaps, but I unfortunately I see the same checked-out behavior at dog parks and on hiking trails everywhere. People on their phones, at best mindlessly throwing a ball like an automaton, at worst completely unaware of where their pup is or what the dog is doing, which is not only lame, but can also be dangerous.

It’s sad to me. One of the best reasons to live with a dog, in my opinion, is to fully embrace the life and connection it brings into one’s routine. When you live with a dog, you have so many opportunities to be present in the moment and enjoy the day. Dogs get us out into nature; they bring focus onto the simply pleasures in life. I absolutely love to observe my pups sniffing on our walks; I marvel at the power and sensitivity of their noses and all of the little treasures they uncover. I delight in watching young dogs vibrate with excitement over the very idea of a romp in a wide-open field or the way they expertly navigate dense woods in leaps and bounds. I adore the way an elderly dog rolls in the grass, scratching her back and basking in scent and sunshine.

Summer is nearly upon us, and I have a challenge for you. Ditch your phone and spend more time with your dog. Seriously, put your phone in a drawer, and give your best friend your full attention for at least an hour or two a day. There are plenty of hours of daylight, and the days of our lives aren’t on demand like Netflix — once they’re gone, they’re gone. Dog’s lives are heartbreakingly short, and the years go by so quickly.

Here is a tip: Your time with your dog need not be frenetic and full of rocket-like energy bursts. Sure for some dogs, that’s their speed, and nearly every dog likes a bit of a run, romp, or wrestle occasionally, but it is also very beneficial to teach your pup to be a bit more zen-like at times. Energy creates energy. You can set the pace. If you’ve been a Chuck It nut, try something new, and teach, or rather remind, your dog to stop and smell the roses. And the trees. And the fire hydrants. You get the idea.

This practice might be particularly important if your dog goes to day care or frequents dog parks regularly. I know it’s easy and gratifying to let your dog play with other dogs. I find dog/dog interactions so fascinating. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over my many years on this planet, it is everything in moderation. Try to always work toward balance. So be aware of how much rewarding interactive time your dog is spending with other dogs rather than with you, because if that particular equation tips the balance, it can become problematic in other areas of your dog’s behavior as well as affect the quality of your relationship.

For example, recently in a Sirius Puppy Two class, one couple in particular was really struggling to get their pup’s attention pretty much at all. Puppy Two is for dogs who have successfully completed Puppy One, and so, it’s not for novices. However, developmentally, dogs that participate in Puppy Two are burgeoning adolescents. No longer the wide-eyed, innocents of their Puppy Kindergarten days, these canine students are confident and have lots of competing interests in their teenage bodies and brains. While the other students in this class happily went about engaging their dogs in all sorts of team activities, this couple was practically begging for the dog’s attention to no avail. I asked if the he attended day care and they said no, but that he does have a few canine friends in the neighborhood that he plays with every single night and weekend. One of the owners admitted that after a long day at work, letting the dogs tire each other out was the easiest thing to do. Training with or even playing with the dog seemed like so much work.

I could see this dog had little connection with his owners and suggested they swap out their weeknight play dates for 30-45 minute play and training walks with their pup and that they only let the dogs play once on the weekend. I also suggested that they hand-feed their pup his dinner on these nightly walks and that they bring along a favorite tug toy. I asked them to try this new routine for one week. They agreed to try, and when they three of them returned to class the following week, it was like they had a different dog — a dog who looked them straight in the eyes and eagerly awaited interaction and instruction. They were thrilled with the results and also realized that exercising their dog isn’t only a physical activity, but also a relational one that added mental stimulation to their routine, which actually tired their guy out more than straight physical exercise. Bonus. They realized that hanging out with their dog wasn’t a chore, but rather became an evening ritual they looked forward to that surprisingly helped them to unwind at the end of the day.

Now this is the way to spend the dog days of summer — actually out and about enjoying time with your dog.

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

Main article photo by: Photo Usan Illic/iStock