One of the main reasons that behavioral problems exist in dogs, is the lack of a fulfilling life. Our modern pet dogs don’t have to work for their food, they sleep in our beds, they have millions of toys, they decide to make our belongings their toys, they are bathed and groomed regularly; by most measures they live the cushiest life imaginable. They seem happy and excited, but something is missing. What’s missing is the fulfillment that comes with having a job. We have bred dogs for thousands of years to have jobs, and only recently taken these jobs away. It’s important to understand that a dog that seems happy and excited is not necessarily living a fulfilling life. In my last post, I wrote about how our dogs are born “perfect” and it is up to us to provide the proper framework to allow them to stay that way. Providing dogs with a fulfilling life, not just a happy life, is the most important part of this framework. In today’s post, we’ll talk about what I feel is the biggest key to helping our dogs to live a fulfilling life, providing them with work.
I spent nine years of my life working with what I believe are the toughest, most intense dogs in the world. Sled dogs live a hard life. They sleep outdoors in sub-zero temperatures (most have never been indoors in their life and panic when brought inside), most have never had a bath and are kept on a chain when not pulling sleds, modern racing dogs are trained to pull a sled one hundred miles in a day for ten days in a row. However, the sled dogs that I’ve known are some of the most psychologically balanced dogs I’ve ever met (the average sled dog is MUCH better off psychologically than the average pet dog). Why is this? It’s because they have a job. They get the physical, mental, and social stimulation that most pet dogs don’t get, and thus live a very fulfilling life.
Let me describe their lives, in a more positive light, as I highlighted some of the negatives to sled dog life in the last paragraph. They are provided with work. Pulling a sled is physically strenuous, but they love it. Just as a herding dog is crazy about herding, sled dogs are crazy about pulling. But, (though if you’ve ever seen a dog team taking off you may think that there are no rules) there is a structure. The dogs all need to be (while in a highly excited state of mind) facing forward, not chewing on the lines, not distracted by their surroundings, not “marking” while running, not playing with their neighbor, etc… It can also be mentally challenging. The dogs that need a mental challenge the most often end up leading the team. These dogs are usually highly intelligent and alert, and are capable of no less than 100% effort at all times. Leading a team across a river, across uneven terrain, or through a blizzard requires enormous amounts of focus, and provides the dog with the mental challenge that it craves. After a day out on the trail, the dogs are fed, stretched, massaged and fed again. They sleep contently in the company of each other and are silent with the exception of the one or two times per night that they howl as a group, which is a social experience. This is a fulfilling life for a dog because, though they are not provided with the luxuries that our pet dogs are provided with, they are provided with work, which is made up of two ingredients that we can easily replicate for our pets: structure and exercise (physical, mental, or both).
Many dogs get plenty of exercise, but most don’t have any structure associated with their exercise; structure is what makes the activity simulate a job for a dog. “Structure” means that the dog is performing a task for the human based on the rules set by the human. When you ask a dog to do something a certain way, they are then performing the task for you, and thus performing a job. Turning a dog loose in a dog park and letting them romp around unsupervised can be physically exhausting, but provides little fulfillment. A long and structured leashed walk provides quite a bit more fulfillment.
I often tell people that “it starts from within”. Before we begin any activity it’s important that we understand what our goal is. It’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s also about understanding why we are doing that thing and having our minds in the right place first. So, when we are taking our dogs for a walk, we don’t grab the leash, start speaking to them in an excited tone, and work them into a frenzy; this is play (exercise with no structure). We leash the dog up calmly, with no excitement and no talking, set rules for the dog and walk with purpose; this is work (structure and physical exercise). To our dogs, these are two completely different tasks; one is a short-term energy release and the other is a fulfilling ritual that simulates work. It’s important to note that I’m not saying you can never have fun with your dog, I’m only saying that the fun has to come after the work, after the dog is feeling fulfilled and has performed it’s “job”.
Higher energy dogs need more physical stimulation than leashed walks only. You can supplement your leashed walks with structured games of fetch, agility courses, or bike rides (this is one of my favorites for my own dog. I ride, she runs. Wear your helmet and be careful!)
In my next post we’ll dive deeper into the specifics of creating “jobs” for our dogs. For now, it’s important to start thinking of the activities that we perform with our dogs as work rather than play. When we’re going for a walk, it’s serious business! Fetching the tennis ball is a very important task that only one dog can do! When the work is done, feed your dog, play with them, give belly rubs and massages. Your dog will feel proud of the work that was done and be well on it’s way to living a more fulfilling life.