What is the best way to keep on the straight and narrow for a person? Usually it’s to find a way to keep our mind busy. We usually need a purpose, to be of service or keep challenging ourselves in some way, even if that’s to just continue to work, put food on the table and raise our kids. Keeping our mind busy keeps us out of trouble. I did so much as a kid and that was what i was told…it keeps me out of trouble, LOL. There is definitely some real truth to that. It got me thinking about dogs and the huge rise in the amount of people who adopted a dog or bought a puppy in the last year. I am over whelmed with calls and emails about it and serious issues popping up. It’s not just the separation anxiety trainers are seeing constantly, it’s more territorial barking, nipping at family members and a rise in aggression in the home or in the home neighborhood. Why is that?
I was talking to a trainer friend about it the other day and yes, dogs need more boundaries, rules, I talk about that a lot, but what else?
The dogs are missing out on mental work. It made me think about people and everything we have been through in the last year. Many of us have lost our purpose, our lively hood, our focus or will to press on with our goals due to different circumstances changing everything. It’s made us more unsettled, edgier, depressed, angry, desperate, etc. I could go on. Obviously that’s not everybody, but you get the idea. Without a mission in life, however big or small, that’s what happens to most of us. I think that’s how many dogs feel. We walk them, they play a bit and that’s it for many of them. Some would say that’s an average family dog and many dogs are happy with that. If they are, then this post isn’t for them. This post is for the retriever that is very mentally bored with a neighborhood walk and fetch in the yard. So, as they grow and live with their family, they become jumpy, excitable, nippy, barky, even reactive on walks and more. They are meant to use all their senses to seek and find on their own, then retrieve and walk and run with a purpose. A walk and a ball thrown is a poor substitute. (Yes I know not all retrievers :)
A person that has no purpose and isn’t challenged mentally and kept occupied can really struggle in life. The same goes for dogs. They need jobs to do on a regular basis. They need mental stimulation, challenges, etc. At the end of the day, they might behave fine, just not listen very well. In that case, following this advice is still recommended, just not crucial.
So what does mental work mean? A simple walk where they sniff where they want and “explore” the neighborhood with their nose is boring and easy. Working with them in some way is mentally challenging. Setting boundaries and rules to things that are “dog” is challenging.
For example, I was working with a young dog that is out of control barking, jumping and whining. This dog had already had training with someone and knew all the basics quite well, for a treat especially. The problem is the dog never followed what the owners said without a treat. Why? Because a treat was always used as re-enforcement for the command, never weaned to the leash or body language and the dog wasn’t worked much. A sit at the door, for food bowl and a walk. I put a long leash on the dog, no commands, no food, just 180’s. Dog zooms ahead, I turn and start with leash guidance. 15 minutes of this and the dog is no more in tune with me, isn’t looking at me and I don’t exist. It wasn’t mentally draining for the dog. The dog felt free and just pulled around occasionally. No real inhibitions or thought to his movement or decisions. The dog is still zooming sometimes, almost annoyed by my presence, looking at people to rush over to, picking up things off the ground, etc. The leash and myself was a serious nuisance to him. I thought I’d wear him down and he’d start to realize I was there and could provide value, but no. I had none without food and after the initial jump on me all excited, I didn’t matter anymore. Finally I gave him a tug of the leash, a firm tug and release. He looked at me and trotted over. I was very neutral. I gave him a little pet and it took three more times and he finally started watching me, moving with me, around people easily with no leash hardly. He’d come to me for some calm pets. We were in-sync. That always feels so good. It was 30 minutes total. The owners said he slept for 3 hours, something they could never get him to do during the day, even after his long walks. It’s because I put a boundary to the exercise, became relevant, I mattered, got the dog thinking and then we bonded nicely and he was very satisfied. He was mentally fulfilled, satisfied and so he was calm and confident. That’s something they have been working on in their yard and in the house, even just a few minutes most days and his attention has improved ten fold. These are little things that change everything.
That’s one in a million ideas. Another one is if your dog plays fetch or tug of war, really focus on the best drop it. You want your dog to drop it on a dime, whether you are touching the toy or not. If your dog is already great at this, then make sure they lay down and give you eye contact before releasing the toy. Your dog already does that too? Great, because the real mental challenge all dogs should learn that play fetch or tug, is to watch you toss or throw the toy and they have to wait for permission to get the toy.
I love doing sports with dogs, but it can build an insane amount of drive if not controlled. However, think of a sport your dog might love and adapt it in a lower-key way. For instance, utilize your environment as an obstacle course like agility. Think over, under, through. Anything you can go over, under and through can be really useful. Every rock, brick wall, bleacher, picnic table, have your dog start to jump up on, walk on, walk under and do a stay on and make it all permission based. So they only run and jump on a rock, when on leash, when you give the command. Have them go under a picnic table with leash guidance, then over it, etc.
Another sport example is if you have a kiddie pool in the back yard, have your dog go in, not just when their hot and they want to, but when you say so. Call them to you in the pool, call them out of the pool. If the pool is shallow, like a kiddie pool, work on sit and down with leash guidance, then stay, then call out of the pool. Have the dog stay while you or your kids are in the pool. If they love the pool, this is a really tough one.
These are key ways to mentally enrich and fulfill your dogs needs so the next time they pop off barking, whatever training method you are using, it is much less likely to fall on deaf ears. Our dogs are bored and it goes against their nature, so naturally, their will be repercussions to that unless we start to change as a culture and get back to working our dogs, from the German shepherd to the chihuahua.