In my last post I wrote about how the biggest key to helping our dogs to live a fulfilling life is to provide them with a job. Of course, we don’t need our dogs to have jobs anymore (we don’t need them for transportation, hunting, or protection), but we can easily simulate jobs for them. In this post I’ll get into the specifics of doing that. If you haven’t read my last post, I suggest you start by reading it here…
Work for a dog is any activity that combines structure with either physical exercise, a mental challenge, or both. Let’s break these three ingredients down…
1. Structure. This is the most important one. Structure means that there are rules set by the human. The leashed walk is a great example: the dog walks behind or beside the human, does not weave back and forth behind the human, does not react to other dogs or stimuli, etc.. These are rules set by the human and carried out by the dog, this is what makes the activity a job for the dog, and thus a fulfilling experience.
2. Physical exercise. This doesn’t take much explanation and many pet dogs get plenty of it, but it doesn’t mean a lot without the structure. Turning a dog loose to go wild in a dog park doesn’t count. The dog may be physically exhausted after it’s romp, but without any structure it is ultimately left unfulfilled.
3. Mental challenge. A mental challenge is anything that makes a dog think. Teaching a dog to go through an agility course, or use it’s nose to find it’s tennis ball are both excellent mental challenges.
Let’s go through some examples of these three ingredients put together to provide work for a dog. Remember: physical and/or mental challenge plus structure.
-A leashed walk is great! It is highly structured, the physical challenge is low and the mental challenge varies depending on where you’re walking. Walking through a quiet neighborhood is not very mentally challenging, but walking through a busy farmer’s market is. All dogs should go on long leashed walks every day regardless of energy level.
-Agility courses are a great combination of all three ingredients for higher energy dogs. They are physically demanding, highly structured, and mentally challenging.
-Playing “fetch” is highly challenging physically, highly structured and low on the mental challenge scale.
-A great example of work that is low on the physical challenge scale is the work of a trained service dog providing assistance to a human. This work is usually not physically demanding, but very challenging mentally and, of course, very structured. This is very fulfilling work for a dog even though it is not physically exhausting.
It’s important to adjust your dog’s “work” schedule to meet it’s needs. For older or lower energy dogs, two 30 minute structured leashed walks per day is enough. For most dogs though, my baseline suggestion is two hour-long sessions per day. I realize that this sounds like a lot for many people, but it’s my personal philosophy that if we can’t dedicate this much to our dogs, something is out of balance in our own lives. Most of us spend two hours per day doing things that are unproductive and psychologically unfulfilling anyway. One of the many mantras that I find myself repeating is “what’s good for the dog is good for the human”. Waking up early and taking the dog for a long walk is good for both dog and human. It’s rare that a person says “since I’ve become dedicated to waking up early and walking the dog, I’ve become so much less productive at work.” Shoot for two hour-long sessions per day if possible, it not, two 30 minute sessions is the bare minimum.
Creating work for our dogs is the first step in helping them to live more fulfilling lives and the lack of a fulfilling life is the most common reason that dogs exhibit behavioral problems. After our dogs are getting the structured physical and mental exercise that they need, we can begin to zero in on addressing specific problematic behaviors, but they will rarely be receptive to any of our training suggestions until their fulfillment needs are first being met.
Thanks for reading and have a great time "working" with your dog!