Today is National Take Your Dog to Work Day. We know that there are many benefits to having dogs in the workplace, but what many of us fail to consider is that most of our dogs, with the exception of joining us around the water cooler once a year, are themselves unemployed.
Most dog breeds were developed to perform a task - herding, retrieving, hunting, pulling, or the like - that in modern society is now performed without the aid of a dog. However, those drives still remain in our dogs. Do you have a Labrador retriever that will chase the tennis ball until he flops? Or a border collie that tries to herd your family from room to room? Or perhaps (true story) a Newfoundland who insists on dragging your kids out of the pool to "rescue" them?
Dogs who have an innate drive to perform a job need an outlet for that energy. For some dogs, a walk around the block is enough, but that's usually the exception, not the rule. The rest of our hardworking companions need structured tasks, problem-solving activities, puzzle toys, or targeted exercise to keep them from becoming bored and engaging in problems behaviors as a result.
The first step to helping your dog become gainfully employed is to determine what they love to do. Chase? Fetch? Search for things? Chew? This will help you decide what games and activities are best suited for them. We have some suggestions to get you started!
Dogs who love to chase or herd will enjoy any game that involves fast movement. One of our favorites involves using a flirt pole, which is basically an oversized version of a cat pole toy. Flirt poles are used to allow dogs to chase, catch, and "kill" prey, providing a constructive outlet for prey drive. They can also help teach self-control: the dog isn't allowed to chase until released. Bad Rap has a great video to get you started with the flirt pole.
Of course, most chasers also love a good game of fetch, so a session with a tennis ball or frisbee will make them happy as well!
There's a myth that makes the rounds among dog owners sometimes: "don't play tug with your dog because it will make them aggressive." This couldn't be more untrue! Tug mimics a collaborative "killing" of prey - your dog can't play it without you! However, you do need to establish some rules to ensure safe play:
- Your dog should not take the tug toy until you give a cue.
- Your dog should release the toy when asked.
- If your dog's teeth touch your skin, you should stop the game for a minute.
- Use a special toy for tug that your dog doesn't have access to any other time - it will make the game both more structured and more fun.
We like to use two toys for tug. Choose two toys that are equally appealing and exciting for your dog. Soft toys, rope toys, or other toys that are easy for both you and your dog to grab. Begin with toy A in one hand, and toy B behind your back. Engage the dog in tug with toy A, then, after a minute or so, release toy A. Immediately bring toy B out from behind your back and start making a big deal about it, until your dog drops toy A and runs to you to engage with toy B. Begin tug with toy B as you pick up toy A and hide it behind your back. Repeat this until you're ready to end the game.
This method has a couple of benefits: it begins to teach your dog to drop a toy, and it makes you the most engaging part of the game - your dog can't play tug without you! Eventually, your dog will drop the toy as soon as you disengage with it.
If you have a major sniffer or searcher (we're looking at you, Beagle and hound owners) you'll want to engage their nose for a truly satisfying game. We love activities that encourage them to search and find food, toys, or you! Suzanne Clothier has a great rundown of scent games you can play with your budding Search and Rescue dog.
Alternatively, you can use food-based puzzle toys to delight your dog's senses. One of our favorites is the Kibble Nibble, a simple egg-shaped toy that you fill with kibble or treats; your dog then has to push the toy around to cause the food to fall out. Nina Ottosson also makes a great line of food-based puzzle toys that your dog is sure to love.
Chewers can be a challenge if they aren't given plenty of appropriate chew items - they will often select their own, and it's usually something you like better without teeth marks. The key to keeping your chewer happy is continually providing them with lots of new chewing items that they love. Rather than buying new ones every few days, though, you can just offer a few toys at a time, and pick them up and rotate them out every couple of days. The "new" toys should keep your dog's interest for awhile, before you swap them out for others.
Diggers and chewers are kindred spirits - both are activities that are totally normal for dogs, but that can be inconvenient for humans when they are expressed in a destructive manner. The first priority for diggers should be to prevent them from digging in inappropriate places - so if they are inclined to dig in the yard, make sure they are supervised or have plenty of other activities to keep them busy while outside. But our favorite solution for diggers is to give them their own digging spot - think sandbox for kids! You can either partition off a digging area with landscaping timbers and turn up the dirt between them, or get a baby pool and fill it with soil. Bury dog toys and scatter treats in the digging area to create interest, and guide your dog to "his" digging area anytime he begins to dig elsewhere.
No matter what your dog's preference, they can benefit from the physical and intellectual engagement of training. Whether it's manners, dusting off old tricks, or teaching new ones, training is a great way to bond with your dog and keep them busy and content.
No matter what your dog loves to do, there's a "job" for them - you just have to consider yourself your dog's employer, and set them up for success! Dogs who go to work more than once a year will be more healthy, happy, and well-behaved. What job is your dog perfect for?