Before we adopted Ray we had 2 elderly dogs and a middle-aged lab with severe hip dysplasia and bad joints. Not one of them was interested in much activity at all. Lucy, our lab, had at one time required a lot of attention. Either Kevin or I would need to run her or swim her in the Missouri River every day. She loved dock diving, frizbee chasing and playing fetch. If we didn’t take the time to wear her out she did things like eat the couch. But as she aged and her physical problems became more severe, she showed less and less interest in doing anything more than napping on the couch.
When we adopted Ray he was already aging. Although the first year he was home we walked a minimum of twice a day, it was at his speed. As his health started to fail, we dropped the evening walk. The last 2 weeks of his life he only wanted to take his morning walk once.
There there is Turtle. If Turtle could lay on the couch and levitate her food from the bowl on the floor straight to her mouth, she would. Turtle doesn’t take walks, she takes meanders. It can take a half an hour to walk 3 blocks as she examines and sniffs every blade of grass on the way.
Because we had sedentary dogs it was causing a problem. To put it bluntly….I have gotten fat and slothful. I had become a lazy dog owner.
Enter Bubba….a young, energetic, active athletic dog. For the first couple of weeks I tried to teach him our house routine: leisurely walks, chew toys and stuffies, car rides. But it was quickly apparent, this wasn’t enough. We started to see the stirrings of some behavioral issues: Bubba can be extremely mouthy. He would jump up and grab my arm, or put his mouth around my ankle. He would chew on me when I was trying to drive. He was tearing up lots of things in my office. It was very obvious he was bored.
So, we tried to work on training, which he picks up very quickly. While we were actually working together, he was an angel. But I can’t spend 8 hours a day training a dog. He is a dream on the leash, so I tried increasing dog walks…..but those only helped settle him down for a short while.
What I am describing is NOT a dog issue. It is 100% a human issue. Let me say that again…..the issues I was having were MY fault, not Bubba’s. I needed to modify what I was doing, to get the results I was looking for. It does no good at all to determine what behavior you don’t want to see. It is much easier to approach it from the opposite direction…..what behavior would I like to see?
Instead of setting Bubba up to fail, I had to take a step back and figure out how to set him up for success. I am a strong supporter of positive reinforcement training. One of the core beliefs is to reward good behavior, or behavior you want to see more of, and to try and ignore bad behavior (unless it is unsafe/dangerous). I had to determine how to meet his needs, to help him be a great companion and family member.
Bubba is what John Garcia calls a “soft dog”. That means a dog who is easy going, easily trained, sweet and loving. His natural inclination is to be with people. He wants to do things right. He wants love and praise. He is so smart. He is so quick to pick up new things. He was never acting out of aggression….only boredom or a desire to play. I had forgotten how much activity a young dog needs. I had forgotten the first tenet of my belief system: A tired dog is a happy dog. I was failing Bubba, and failing him badly. It was time to re-evaluate our interactions.
The late Pat Whitacre, one of the smartest dog trainers I have ever met, put it this way “All behavior serves a purpose. A dog does things because it has worked in the past. He doesn’t understand wrong or bad. He only understands if something works to his benefit. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is our job to show him that doing things our way can be more rewarding “.
Bubba didn’t want strolling walks. He didn’t want bones or chewies. He wanted to move, to run and jump and slam into things. He needed much more activity in his life. Bubba was trying, in his puppy way, to tell me what he needed. I just had to stop and listen.
Yesterday I picked up two identical tough, indestructible balls. As soon as we got home from work I took Bubba into the yard and played high impact fetch. As he was returning one ball, I was throwing the other one into the pavement as hard as I could, so that it bounced high and he had to work to catch it. He was in heaven. This was a wonderful new game! After several minutes of hard charging chase we went inside. He was wonderfully well-behaved. We took our evening walk as normal, but before bed I brought out the balls again, and we had another session before it was time for sleep. The ONLY time Bubba gets the balls, which he very obviously loves, is when we are playing together.
This morning we had a session before leaving for work. The ride to work was calm and uneventful. No moving from front seat to back seat. No grabbing my arm or hand. No trying to climb into my lap. During my coffee break, we played with the balls in the dog run. He is being so well behaved I can’t even believe it.
Here is the deal: for 10 minutes, a few times a day, I am spending time helping him expend energy. In return, he is being sweet and calm in my office. The time I am spending is less than half of what I spent taking things away from him and trying to get him to settle down. I am meeting his needs…..and he is returning the favor.
Being a responsible owner doesn’t end at spay/neuter. It means more than providing good food and a safe place to live. It means determining what a dog needs to be happy and healthy…and then providing it to the best of your abilities.
Bubba is and has always been a great dog. Now I am becoming a better caregiver.