Walter is a busy dog. A five year old Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix, Walter is black, with a curly coat, and dark, bright expressive eyes. Those eyes, his dancing feet, and constantly wagging tail betray his personality. Kate Abbott, one of Kindred Spirits’ dog trainers and Walter’s owner, says, “If I don’t keep Walter physically and mentally tired, he’s going to find something to do to amuse himself and I have learned through experience that I won’t appreciate his efforts!”
Kate defines a busy dog as, “A dog mentally bright and physically active who has more energy than the average dog.” A good example is a German Shepherd Dog, Watachie, who is a very bright, intelligent, and busy dog. Watachie learned to chew the corner off a sofa cushion so that he could pull the stuffing out and fling it all over the living room. But because he chewed such a tiny hole in the cushion cover, his owner had no idea where the stuffing was coming from until the cushion was quite depleted. Meanwhile, until she figured it out, Watachie had great fun. Every time his owner left the room he would pull more stuffing out and fling it all over. It became a self rewarding behavior that Watchie used to keep himself amused.
Changing Dog and Owner Behavior
Yelling at these dogs, using a leash to make corrections, or correcting them by other means will not solve the problems associated with an intelligent mind and energetic body. Instead, the owners of busy dogs need to look at their relationship with the dog first – with an unbiased eye – and begin making some changes there.
Martin Deeley, a dog trainer from Monteverde, FL, says some owners teach their dogs to be busy. He says, “Some owners don’t allow their dogs to settle down; they constantly pet the dog, stroke him, hug him, and talk to him. The dog learns that his job is to entertain his owner and if the owner isn’t initiating interaction, the dog begins to.” These dogs constantly nudge the owner’s hand or arm for petting, they continue to bring toys or balls for the owner to throw, or they may even begin barking at the owner for attention.
Changing this behavior isn’t difficult but does require consistency from the owner. Deeley, who is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the International Association of Canine Professionals, says, “A well trained dog knows when to go ‘out of gear’ and into neutral. Teaching the dog to chill out is easy by leashing the dog, then sitting on the leash or by putting a foot on the leash.” The dog is restrained close to the owner but the owner is not to pet the dog, talk to him, or otherwise interact with the dog. Although some dogs will try and gain the owner’s attention by various means, including nudging the owner and sometimes even jumping on the owner, most dogs will get bored and sit or lie down.
“During this process I use very little in the way of verbal commands,” says Deeley, “If every time the dog gets up we speak to him, even to give commands, we are rewarding him by interacting with him. By keeping a foot on the leash, keeping it snug when he attempts to get up or pull away, and putting slack in the leash when he relaxes, we teach the dog to chill out when we do.”
Owners then need to learn to leave their dogs alone at times. Deeley says, “We don’t have to keep touching them, talking to them, or asking to be entertained. All we have to do is watch the dog relax or sleep and smile when we feel like it.”
Training as a Part of Life
“I am a firm believer that a trained dog is a happier dog,” says Deb Eldredge, DVM, of Vernon, NY. “A trained dog who understands the down stay can be in the house with you, nearby, without being underfoot. Dogs also like to help, so you can have the dog carry things for you or pick up things.” A dog who understands how to pick up things can take the dirty socks or wet towels to the clothes hamper. The dog can get the morning newspaper or walk with you to the mail box and carry home a magazine.
Training can begin with basic obedience training which normally includes the sit, down, stay, come and heel, but it is especially important that for busy dogs, training should continue from puppyhood on into adolescence and into adulthood. Dr, Eldredge says, “Most dogs hit the high point of ‘crazies’ when they are between 6 months of age to 18 months of age. Sort of like canine juvenile delinquents!” These dogs need training sessions that will occupy and tire their mind. The training should include obedience training but doesn’t have to be limited to that; it can include advanced obedience training, agility for fun or competition, other canine sports, or even some trick training. Abbott does trick training with Walter because its fun for both of them yet can also tire him out mentally, “Walter probably knows 150 different tricks or commands – maybe even more.”
This training should not be limited to the training sessions but instead needs to be incorporated into the dog and owner’s daily routine. Abbott says, “I had a private training session with a woman who had begun training her Great Dane but was having some trouble. So I asked her to show me what she was doing. She began by placing some dog treats on the kitchen counter and calling her dog to her. He came and he performed all his exercises as she asked him to and did them quite nicely. So I asked what the problem was. It turns out that the only place she practiced the commands was right there, at the counter, and so the dog learned that was where he was to perform them. When they went anywhere else, he ignored her completely.”
To prevent the dog from learning this lesson, practice all of his training skills – obedience, tricks, or games – in the house, out in the back yard, out front, while on walks, and everywhere the dog goes with you.
Exercise and Training
A tired dog is a happy dog. Dr. Eldredge shares her home with several herding dogs, most of whom she says could fit the description of a busy dog. She says, “Exercise can consist of long walks and/or runs, depending upon the dog, his age and fitness level.”
A one mile walk might be more than enough for a young Chihuahua but won’t come close to satisfying the exercise needs of a healthy young Australian Shepherd or Border Collie. In determining the exercise needs of your dog, take into account his age and his present level of fitness.
Young puppies and adolescent dogs need exercise in short sessions (ten to fifteen minutes each) several times each day. Avoid too much repetitive exercise – such as running distances on concrete – as this can damage developing bones and joints.
Young adult dogs with no health problems can run, play, and exercise until they are panting, slowing down, and are ready to take a rest. But if your dog hasn’t had much exercise for a while, work him up to this point slowly; sore muscles are no fun for people or dogs!
Older dogs or dogs with a health problem should be examined by a veterinarian prior to beginning an exercise program. After a physical, your veterinarian can provide some guidance as to what your dog is capable of doing.
But the exercise can also be combined with training and work. Dr. Eldredge says, “My young Belgain Tervuren, Hokey, for example, is also my main farm dog and part of his daily routine is to move sheep and ducks for me.”
If you don’t have access to a farm or livestock, your dog can still combine training with exercise. Abbott says, “I combine training skills with exercise and play for Walter. I will ask him to sit and wait, then I’ll throw his ball. He has to wait until I release him then he can chase after the ball. When he brings the ball back to me, he is to give me the ball, placing it in my hand. I won’t pick it up and throw it if he drops it to the ground or just spits it out somewhere in my direction.”
Abbott says, “Make self control (and by extension, the ability to listen to the owner) a self rewarding activity. The dog who has self control and demonstrates it earns real life rewards (going for a walk, playing ball, getting a toy).”
Crate Training to Calm the Dog
Teaching the dog to accept and relax in a crate is usually accepted as a part of normal puppy training. Crate training as a part of housetraining helps the puppy develop bowel and bladder control, and many trainers, including Kate Abbott, recommend that owners to use the crate to help prevent destructive behaviors from turning into bad habits during puppyhood.
But crate training can also help calm a busy dog. Dr. Eldredge says that she has some household rules the dogs must follow, “Bouncing off the furniture is not allowed and wild games of tag are sent outside (to the fenced in yard). However, if one or more dogs get totally out of hand, they might get a time out in the crate.”
The crate isn’t a punishment; the dog is not being yelled at or thrown into the crate so he bounces off the back of it. Instead, he’s quietly put into the crate, the door is closed, and he’s given a period of time (ten or fifteen minutes; maybe half an hour depending upon the dog) to calm down. When he has relaxed in the crate, the door is opened and he can come out or remain as he wishes.
Abbott says, “Many owners will find that their dog may choose to go to his crate on his own. If Walter is feeling overwhelmed or tired, he’ll disappear and when I go to look for him, the first place I check is his crate.” The crate becomes a place of security as well as the dog’s bed. For well trained but still busy dogs such as Walter, it can also help them gain back their sense of self control.
Living with a Busy Dog
Living with a busy dog can be a joy; these dogs are fun, always up for a walk, a game, or a training session. But it can also be a challenge. Dr. Eldredge says, “My Kuvasz enjoyed racing through the house, bouncing off the back of the sofa, usually after enticing one of the herding dogs into a game of chase. But that was 110 pounds of dog flying through the air!”
Many busy dogs end up in local shelters and with rescue groups because the owner didn’t realize the realities of living with certain breeds that are prone to being busy. Dr. Eldredge says, “Very often people choose the wrong breed for them. It’s important that people do some research before getting a dog; look into exercise requirements, energy levels, and trainability when choosing a dog.”
But once you have a dog and you find that he is a busy dog, don’t despair. Kate Abbott had no intention of getting a busy dog but now adores Walter; he charms her with his dark eyes, smiling mouth, and wagging tail. But she adds, “I can’t ignore Walter’s needs for very long. If I do, he becomes more reactive and will bark at the drop of a pin. He’s chew on himself and he’ll bring me toy after toy after toy. He can’t settle down. So I have to keep up with him. I make self control a self rewarding activity and I keep Walter’s mind as tired as his body.”
Originally published in Dog World magazine.
Photo provided by Liz Palika.