September Blog – The self employed dog
In the modern jobs market, older skills have become redundant and people with traditional trades can find themselves struggling for employment. The same is true to our canine companions, as the ‘trades’ they were originally bred to do slip away, and they all fall in to the role of family pets. Many breeds of dogs are highly intelligent and have a strong work ethic when they set their mind to a task. If their environment that does not offer enough challenge they can soon seek out their own work and become self-employed.
Many of us know a self-employed dog and these scenarios may seem familiar: The Landscape Gardener who is slowly rearranging all the flowerbeds by digging holes; The Bouncer who sees it as their duty to frisk and bounce all over every visitor; The Nanny who herds the children; The Demolitions Expert who is slowly chewing their way through the settee or skirting boards; and The Entertainer who ensures there is never a dull moment in the evenings by doing the wall of death round the sofas or stealing the remote control!
Dogs thrive on having mental stimulation and a job to do. If we can channel their energy and ensure they gain the satisfaction of completing daily challenges we can reduce the frequency of the more inappropriate behaviours. It is time to put our dogs back to work. There are lots of quick and easy ways that we can add variety and challenge to a dog’s day that will not take up much time, but will make a huge difference. Here at Dogs Trust Loughborough, we are keen to ensure that all the dogs in our care have as much ‘work’ as possible. I will talk you through some of the things we use to enrich the dogs’ days that can also transfer to your home.
No free meals!
Meal times are the perfect way to add mental stimulation and the satisfaction of completing a task without building too much adrenalin or excitement. There are lots of activity toys on the market that can be picked up from your local pet shop such as Kongs activity balls (conical shaped rubber toys that can be packed with food) that contain a maze for dry food to drop out randomly as the dog rolls it along, pyramid-shaped wobbly toys that can be knocked around. However, activity feeding need not incur additional expense at the pet shop. Dry food can be scattered in the garden or out on walks for the dog to use their nose to seek out, or everyday household items can be utilised to make the meal more difficult. Our dogs love destruction boxes which are cardboard boxes filled with newspaper or shredded paper with toys/treats/their dry food hidden inside. The dog has to dig their way through the box to find the goodies and if they get the hang of it quickly it can begin to resemble a pass the parcel exercise with a box within a box within a box and goodies hidden at each stage.
Mac, 5 year old jack Russell enjoying a destruction box in his kennel
Utilising a dog’s nose is a fantastic way to give them both mental and physical exercise by harnessing one of the things they do best – sniffing! Nose work doesn’t involve lots of expensive equipment; it can easily be set up in the garden or on walks.
If your dog has a real love for a specific toy such as a tennis ball, rather than playing fetch with them, you could begin to play searching games where the dog has to use their nose to find the hidden toy. This uses different areas of the dog’s brain and helps them to work in more of a calm, methodical manner rather than overexciting them and raising their adrenalin, which could then spill over into excitable behaviour when they get home. Start very simply by popping your dog indoors, head out to the garden and leave their favourite toy in plain sight, let your dog out in to the garden and introduce a new command such as ‘Find it’ or ‘Seek’ say this new phrase to them as soon as they come outside and praise them excitedly when they find their toy and let them play with it for a short time. Repeat the process, gradually making the search harder and harder by placing the toy behind something like a plant pot or in longer grass. As they become good at the game you could introduce different heights such as putting the toy on a garden chair or hanging from a low branch or you could utilise cardboard boxes that they have to search inside. If you do not have a toy-motivated dog you can play with little jackpots of food rewards in place of a toy.
Rory, 18-month old Labrador cross boxer searching for his tennis ball in our training barn
Tracking is a simple, fun game that, if introduced gradually, could soon become your dog’s favourite thing to do out on walks. Ideally, you need a helper who can either lay the track or hold on to your dog while you do it. Walk away from them in a straight line and place a yummy treat in each of your footsteps where you will have flattened the grass as you walked. Initially tracks should only be up to 6-foot in length with a special toy or treats at the end. Once the track is ready, jump off to the side and have your handler allow the dog to sniff along the footsteps and collect all the treats. Tracking needs to be done on lead and, ideally, you should use a harness as dogs can pull excitedly whilst tracking. Gradually increase the distance of your tracks and begin to reduce down the food in your footsteps to every other step or every third step but still leaving the jackpot of special treat or toy.
Ralph 2 year old fox hound tracking in the paddock
Teach something new
Teaching your dog a new skill or trick is an excellent way to work on their training but also develop your bond, make them more responsive and give them fun tasks for the day. You may wish to join a class environment to increase their social skills at the same time or train for at home in the living room. You can find help and inspiration with our Training Made Easy videos by following this link http://www.dogstrust.org.uk/az/t/trainingvideos/
Once your dog has their newly acquired skill such as lying down or sitting, we can then think about how we can harness the skills to reduce the self-employed behaviour that we are not so fond of. If you have a ‘Bouncer’ dog for example we could use their sitting skills to show them that sitting when greeting people gets more rewards than jumping all over them, if you have a ‘Nanny’ dog who is herding the children or the cats, teaching them to go to their bed and lie down on command to break the herding behaviour chain.
Our ‘Back to School class’ of September 2013
Making the most of your outside space
Many self-employed dogs use their skills in the back garden to entertain themselves, and there are lots of ways we can make the space more interesting for them and provide ‘work’ so that they are not barking at the neighbours or digging up your prized veg. A plastic paddling pool can make an excellent addition as it can easily convert in to a sand pit for winter. A pool not only offers your dog chance to cool off but you can make things more interesting by floating toys for them to catch or sinking treats to snorkel for. By filling them with sand we then have a dig pit that can be the dog’s legitimate outlet for their landscape gardening. Hiding toys and chews in the sand at different points in the week (without your dog seeing) will encourage them to return to the sand pit rather than other parts of the garden as it often holds wonderful surprises for them.
We have had a lot of success this summer with our ice pops that have gone down a storm with the dogs. We soak their dry food with a little tasty gravy and added water and the freeze them in p-plastic cups. Break off the cup when you are ready to give it to your dog and pop it out on the lawn for them to roll and chew, if you want to add an extra challenge freeze a piece of rope or an old lead in to the cup and hang it from a low branch or part of the fence.
Toby the Labrador and Yakult the Labrador cross collie enjoying their ice pops which we hang up to offer the dogs more of a challenge
A Paddling pool is useful for splashing and cooling off but can also turn into a searching game for water loving dogs with hidden treats and toys.