A dog’s purpose

Do you find that even after her daily walks your dog still has LOTS of energy? Is your dog hyperactive? Or does she often show signs of boredom such as excessively licking herself or chewing chair and table legs?  If yes, this may be because she is under-stimulated – you may need to give your companion a dog job…

Domesticated dogs have worked alongside humans for thousands of years with many being bred specifically for jobs like hunting, herding, farming, guarding livestock and protection.  These jobs provided dogs with regular exercise, stimulating activities and challenging problems to solve.  Just by providing their dog’s with jobs, owners were easily looking after their dog’s mind and body. Unfortunately over time dogs have stopped doing the jobs they were bred to do and today, most dogs lead under-stimulated lives and spend most of their days in homes, with no job to perform.

Your dog’s mind 

Under-stimulated dogs often direct their excess energy into problem behaviours, such as barking, hyperactivity or anxiety or they become so bored or anxious that they develop self destructive behaviours such as excessively licking, grooming or biting themselves.

Most of us don’t have the luxury of owning a herd of sheep just waiting to be managed by our herding dog but as responsible dog owners, we’re faced with keeping our dogs happy and healthy by making sure their minds and bodies are mentally and physically stimulated.

Dog jobs

There are a number of jobs that we can ‘give’ our dog.  Here are just 10 ideas as to how you can help give your dog purpose and keep her brain sharp:

1. Dog backpack

If your dog has tons of hectic energy or is nervous, a backpack can help make her feel much calmer and more confident because carrying a backpack will make her feel like she’s contributing.  The backpack doesn’t have to be full of stuff because even an empty backpack will give your dog purpose.   A dog backpack will also add weight to her body which will help your dog burn more energy so she’ll be more tired after her walk and it’ll help burn more calories which will help her keep in shape.  On longer walks or hikes, your dog can carry her own water, food, bowl, waste bags and other items.  No matter what your goal is, having a dog who knows how to carry a backpack can be useful.

Before buying a backpack it’s best to do a bit of research to find the best one for your dog’s breed, age, energy levels and body shape. It’s also best to measure you dog in accordance with the particular brand’s size guidelines.

2. Scent work

Scent work is not just for Spaniels searching for drugs or German Shepherds tracking suspects, it’s for your dog too. This activity is good fun for both of you!  Tiffin and I went on a weekend workshop with Talking Dogs Scentwork which, whilst really informative and practical, isn’t a requirement before trying this activity with your dog at home.  All you need is a fabric toy, a scent such as catnip, a tin and your dog.  There are tons of videos on YouTube that will show you how to get started.

By teaching your dog scent work you’ll be teaching her to find a specific scent rather than a specific item and you’ll be leveraging her amazing sense of smell and her love for performing a task (a job).  By utilising basic search skills, scent work will help build your dog’s confidence, burn off excess mental and physical energy and it will help build an even better bond between you and your dog.

3. Therapy dog

Therapy dogs enrich the lives of people all round the world.  A good dog and handler team does a whole lot more than just make people feel fleetingly happy.  Therapy dogs bring affection, comfort and happiness to people in hospital, assisted living homes, residential homes and hospices as well as to children in schools.  They also help adults and children with learning difficulties, mental and physical therapy and bring comfort to people in stressful situations and those grieving.

If you would like to try your dog as a therapy dog, there’s a national charity within the UK called Pets As Therapy which has been around since 1983.  Although all breeds of dog can become therapy dogs, unfortunately, not every dog has the right temperament.  To name just a few requirements, dogs must love to be fussed, take titbits gently and must be happy to be groomed.  Check out www.petsastherapy.org to see if your dog fits their short requirement list.

4. Hunting (retrieving)

Gundog breeds such as Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Pointers and Weimaraners have a natural instinct to hunt and retrieve.  These instincts maybe lying a dormant in your dog but they can easily be revitalised and even if your dog is not a gundog breed, you can have fun working with your dog’s retrieving abilities.  Easy games to play include tug-of-war, chase and hide and seek.  

Rick’s (my boyfriend) Dad, Pete, wanted a Cocker Spaniel because he wanted a dog to train that had a high drive for hunting and retrieving.  He’s not interested in taking her on shoots but he loves to train her with a whistle and training dummies.  Saffie, his Cocker Spaniel, absolutely loves it and constantly wants to work when given the opportunity.  You can really see that she loves her job.  What’s nice, is that when I take her for a walk with Tiffin she’s happy to chase a ball or play with Tiffin so she knows she only works with Pete.  I don’t think you necessarily need a gundog to do this type of training with.  If you’re interested in giving it a go, there’s so much free information available on Google and YouTube.

5. Obedience

Dog obedience isn’t so much about giving your dog a job but by spending quality time teaching your dog good manners your dog will have to use her brain to learn ‘your rules’ which will mentally tire her out.  And as many of us know a tired dog is a happy dog!  A key benefit of your dog knowing the rules is that she won’t be confused about what she can and can’t do e.g. at home, on walks and when meeting new people.  A dog that doesn’t know ‘the rules’ are can become anxious and/or aggressive so it’s a really good idea to spend a little time each week teaching your dog some life skills.  

By spending this one-on-one time with your dog you will naturally build upon the special bond that exists between you and your dog.  If you use positive reinforcement training either with healthy treats or with your dog’s favourite toy, your dog will quickly realise that the correct action brings rewards which should instil a sense of responsibility in her.  If you decide to do your training in a local class, your dog will also get the opportunity to meet other dogs allowing her to interact and socialise.

6. Pulling stuff

Teaching your dog to pull something can be both fun and practical.  It’ll give your dog a fantastic workout and a job to do. Newfoundlands, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Huskies have been pulling carts, sledges and people on skis for centuries, but smaller dogs can pull stuff too. Today, it’s often referred to as mushing or urban mushing.  Urban mushing is “a sport or transport method powered by dogs” and includes carting, sled dog racing, scootering, bikejoring and canicross,

Tiffin and I have done canicross a couple of times at the local park run.  We’ve both loved it. I feel like I’m flying and run so so much faster than when I’m by myself.  Running isn’t my favourite sport and when I run by myself I often stop to walk but when I’m with Tiffin, I feel guilty so she’s definitely the best running partner ever.  Tiffin can just run and run so I know she really enjoys it.  It makes me question why we don’t do it more often but I know it’s my sheer laziness…

With regards to pulling something like a cart of a sledge, most dogs can pull 2-3 times their body weight.  I haven’t tried this with Tiffin so don’t want to give you any advice as you’ll need to do it properly so that you don’t injure your dog.  I recommend either talking to someone who sells dog carts or attend a course or speak to someone who has a lot of experience teaching their dogs to pull carts.

7. Treiball

Treiball is the herding dogs equivalent to retrieving or hunting.  Herding is what Collies, Kelpies, Cattle dogs and Shepherd dogs were bred to do but without something to herd they can lose their sense of purpose.  This is the kind of dog that I know best because I grew up with Bearded Collies and now live with Tiffin a working Beardie.  She is definitely a herder!  But the only chance she really gets at herding is cats and birds.

We tried treiball on dog camp in November 2016.  It’s difficult despite Tiffin’s natural herding ability.  Treiball is a team sport between handler and dog and so even if a dog has a natural herding ability but the owner doesn’t have a natural teaching/communication ability it’s quite challenging.  That’s where we’re at…it’s not all about Tiffin, it’s also about my ability to communicate to Tiffin what I want her to do. This shows that you don’t need a herding dog to try this sport, you just need to have patience and be prepared to have some fun.

Treibball is quite an unusual dog sport and must have required a great amount of imagination to create but it’s now a competitive sport all round the world.  Treiball uses large exercise or gym balls instead of sheep.  You have to teach your dog to herd the gym balls into a football goal rather than a sheep pen.  Treiball is great because it builds your dog’s attention on you, her impulse control and her off lead reliability.  And it strengthens the communication between you and your dog.  This last benefit makes me want to try treiball again.  

8. Dog sports

Dog sports such as agility, flyball and disc dog aren’t really jobs in the traditional sense i.e. herding or hunting but they’re sports that have been created for dogs to keep them active both physically and mentally.  All of these sports can be played at a competitive or social level. Whichever sport you choose to do on a regular basis, both you and your dog must love it because they all require patience, consistency, and fun.

In dog agility, dogs are trained to jump over hurdles, run through tunnels, and navigate various walkways and seesaws – all in a specific order.  Tiffin and I have done quite a lot of dog agility over the last two years but we very much do it at a social level mainly because I don’t dedicate enough time to train her to do it competitively.  We really enjoy our lessons and I look forward to them each week.  I’ve talked about our dog agility experiences in a couple of blog posts: 10 agility tips from a beginner and How to choose an agility instructor.

Flyball is a type of relay race that involves teams of four dogs. One dog from each team runs down a lane, jumping over small hurdles, towards the “flyball box.”  The dog steps on a panel with her front paws and triggers the flyball box to release a tennis ball. The dog then brings the ball back over the hurdles to her handler.  Once a dog has completed the course, the next dog is released from the starting line. The first team to have all four dogs complete the course wins.  Tiffin and I tried flyball at dog camp in November 2016, Tiffin loved running really fast but she didn’t like noise of the tennis ball being released so the instructor had to roll the tennis ball down the flyball box. I think that she would get used to the noise if we did flyball on a regular basis.

Disc dog is where the handler throws a disc or frisbee accurately and far and the dog is trained to chase and catch the disc.  At a competitive level there are lots of rules and scoring.  Tiffin and I haven’t tried this sport yet.

9. Homemade games

Part of the reason why dogs love to have a job is that they get to use their brain.  Playing games with your dog isn’t really giving your dog a job but you can give her tasks to do that make her use her brain.  You can teach different words to your dog e.g. give each of her toys a name and ask her to fetch one at a time or you can teach her to tidy up her toys or bring your slippers from the kitchen to where you’re sitting in the lounge.  The number of things you can teach your dog are infinite, you’re only limited by your imagination.

You can also play games like tug, chase, hide and seek, ball on the stairs or find it.  Again, these games will make your dog use her brain which will tire her out and make her happy.

10. Mentally stimulating toys

There are hundreds of toys out there designed to make a dog think.  I have bought a few toys for Tiffin over the years but my favourite is the Kong toys because I get to be creative and because they keep her entertained the longest.  I like to fill them with yogurt, peanut butter, cheese, dog treats and honey and then freeze it; Tiffin has to work out how to get the food out.  If you have to leave your dog at home alone or if you’re at home with your dog but have to work or you just want to relax and not worry about your dog getting bored, mentally stimulating toys like Kongs, Trixie games or Nina Ottoson games are brilliant for keeping your dog entertained.

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