A reader told us he’d repeatedly read that “dogs need a job.” Such advice is not hard to find, including on the AKC site, “How to Give Your Dog Jobs.“ Our reader then asked: Do they? Really? Ah, good question. Before we all try to send our border collies to coding school and turn our Labradors into delivery drivers, it would probably be smart to start by defining “job.” Here’s a common one: “A task or piece of work, especially one that is paid.” Ah, then, we are left with “what’s a piece of work,” and are in danger of going so far into the weeds that even a trainer sniffer K9 couldn’t find us.
I’m going to jump to the head of the line and suggest that dogs don’t necessarily need to accomplish a task. I think the standard advice is trying to say that dogs need mental exercise as much as physical exertion. That dogs can get bored, and boredom often creates behavioral problems like chewing on TV remotes, incessant barking, or somewhere, someday, a late-night order on QVC by a standard poodle.
I couldn’t agree more that many companion dogs must be bored out of their minds. Animals with a recent history of complicated social relationships along with a raft of life-or-death decisions to make every day, surely can’t all be satisfied by taking a few leash walks in the same place every day and hanging around the house waiting for food scraps to fall from the sky. On the other hand, neither can we spend our days feeling guilty because our dogs only get to work sheep once a day, play hard during long off-leash walks twice a day, get a fresh chew toy in the afternoon, and get full body rubs on the couch every evening. (I have absolutely no idea where that example comes from. Just made it up on the spur of the moment.) That said, here are some random thoughts about what dogs need, related to the “dogs need jobs” advice.
Brain food through their noses: I’ve gone on record, as have many others, that a primary need of dogs is to use the sense of smell, often more than we let them. I wrote a post titled “Take Your Dog on a Sniff, and abide by it religiously. Jim and I are lucky to live on twelve acres that allows us to walk our dogs off leash and sniff all they want. We take them on a long walk off the farm once a week, and let them set the pace on the way out. It amuses me how much energy it takes to stop walking like a primate–shoulder to shoulder, looking ahead, moving at a consistent pace–and walk like a dog, running ahead ten feet, stopping to sniff for thirty seconds, maybe sixty . . .
It takes a lot of physical and mental energy for dogs to use their noses, just ask people who train K9 bomb or cadaver dogs, like Cat Warren, who beautifully describes this in her NYT best-selling book, What the Dog Knows. And it’s easy to incorporate nose work into a dog’s life. When I think of it, I have the dogs check out whatever I’ve brought home from a store. (Note to self: Think of it more often, please.) And every day we put them on a down-stay, throw their toy out of sight, then tell them to ‘find it.” Easy peasy. You can engage your dog’s nose in a range of ways, from simple (take your dog on a “sniff”) to elaborate discrimination games. There are a gazillion sources for scent games to play with your dog, check out Dogwise for lots of ideas, including The Canine Kingdom of Scent, Fun activities using your dog’s natural instincts.
All the World is a Stage: Is a dog’s job performing tricks to amuse us, or to get access to a dinner bowl? I suppose we could think of it as a live performance, the actors without a union or understudies. What’s great about tricks is that dogs have to use their brain to learn new things, requiring mental exercise that is as good for them as physical exercise. (And also can lead to quieter, calmer dogs.)
Some tricks do triple duty, like the play bow above. They can provide mental exercise, a good body stretching exercise, and a great way to relax a dog in a slightly stressful situation. I’d incorporate a trained play bow in every dog training class if I was Queen. Just saying.
Games as mental exercise, aka, a sort of job: Does competing in a sheepdog trial count as “a job?” Oh yes, but so does moving the sheep around at the farm, or maybe a “herding ball” could provide a bit of the same exercise. (Granted, until herding balls become sentient, it’s not close to the same, but we can’t all have a flock of sheep in our closet.) But there’s sooo much now available if one has the time. Agility! Nose work! Fly ball! All of these things can be done for competition or just for fun at home. And all of them have goals, and require dogs to use their bodies and their brains. Given how many opportunities there are to engage in these wonderful games, I’m giving them short shrift here, but how lucky we (and our dogs) are that we have these opportunities. They take time yes, BUT, hey, you can turn just about anything into an agility course in your back yard (safety first please), play nose work in your house, and make up all kinds of ball games without leaving your house. Just be creative, and be sure that your dog really loves the “sport” as much as you do. (We’ve all seen too many examples of the opposite, yes?)
The Need for Autonomy, Agency: This is a long way from a job, but I think the lack of it results in a lot of the “boredom” people talk about in house dogs. I’ve had several dogs with injuries that required almost no autonomy on my dog’s part, and every one of them turned into passive lumps who lay around and sighed like a teenage girl who couldn’t get tickets to a Taylor Swift concert. We can’t say with complete confidence that dogs get depressed in the same way that people do, but I suspect that they do. I think Willie and Skip and Maggie all got depressed at one point in their rehab, when almost every move they made was under our control. After six weeks or so, they got quieter and “calmer,” which some people would love but I knew was a sign that they weren’t themselves. I wonder if some family dogs are “quiet and calm,” because they get little stimulation?
Here’s that photo of Maggie recovering from a strained Achilles I posted a few weeks ago, I just wish I’d made a video so that you could hear the loud, adolescently-dramatic sighs.
Good news is that Maggie is all better now, whew!
What about you? Do you think “all dogs need a job?” Does your dog have one? If so, how do you define it? Better yet, how do you think they define it? I’m all ears.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I’m pretty happy to say goodbye to last week. After that fantastic trip to Cape Breton, last week consisted of three doctor appointments related to facial surgery next week (just carcinoma but on an eyelid, not a great place to take off skin), getting turned around and going to the wrong clinic for one appointment, and then . . . THEN, missing a book talk that I thought was at the library and was somewhere else on Friday night. Me and another author, Bill Stokes, stood in the library parking lot, all ready to join 3 other authors and talk about books and writing. But the parking lot was empty. I checked the library’s website and found a book talk scheduled for the 28th, and concluded we had the wrong date. Went home. Changed. Watched TV. Later found out I had gone to the wrong place; the talk WAS last Friday, just not at the library. I was sick to my stomach all night, didn’t sleep much. If you showed up I AM SO SORRY! Sorry for me too, I was truly looking forward to it. Argh.
On a happier note, the weekend weather was beautiful. I spent a lot of time feeling grateful for this gorgeous view we have out our kitchen window. Who minds doing dishes when you can look up at this?
On Sunday I hacked down the five brussel sprout trees (I literally had to use an axe). Here’s one, with a garden glove for perspective. Many of the sprouts were small, but I figured I’d better get them in before the truly hard frost comes this weekend.
That’s a tiny little clipper in the basket below, so although the results are minimal, they a tad better than it looks in this photograph. I’d say we have a good 5-6 meals of sprouts, and we’ve already had two. Not too bad for my mini-garden of 4 x 4 raised beds.
Here’s a meal we had last week, including our sprouts, fried green tomatoes also from the garden, and roast free-range, organic, pork from down the road, at DreamFarm.
I’ll sign off with photos of Maggie getting her monthly chiropractic adjustments from Dr. Sara Greenslit at AnShen Vet. Dr. Sara is not strangling Maggie, honest, she is adjusting her neck and Maggie is more than happy to put up with it. (Note beef liver on the chair.) Skip loves it too, he’d had his adjustments already. I take them in every month and believe it has helped avoid some major injuries.
Maggie would like to know where the treat is now . . .
Time for me to sign off and attempt to muck out my house. (McConnell proverb: If you can tell the house from the barn it is clean enough.) Tell us what you think about “dogs and jobs,” and whether your dogs are considering forming a union.