If our puppy could answer we would ask, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” For working dogs the answer is normally pretty clear, for our pet dogs though the answer is sometime (literally) a little more muddy. Like us a dog will be at their happiest when they have a purpose and a focus for all their talent. Dogs are extraordinary in many ways and choosing the right balance of sport, activity and rest time for your pet is the secret to a happy home life.
Dogs without direction, much like small children, choose for themselves how to use their natural talents. Because dogs understand very little of what we humans value that often leads them to dig up prize begonias, un-stuff our cushions and make their own entertainment shouting at strangers.
Whole TV series are dedicated to these little tinkers and many an hour can be spend watching videos online of dogs choosing to live the dogs life! When we see older dogs at training for the first time it’s usually because they’ve found an interesting way to create purpose in their life.
Jobs for Dogs
Each dog is an individual with their own interests. We might want our dog to be an agility star, search extraordinaire or perfect gun dog but just like us we don’t always turn out to want the same things as our parents.
Imagine every new human baby being assigned their job for life at birth and the misery that would come from knowing you are a sensational musician that has to do maths forever and never pick up an instrument!
Even when we choose our dogs based on the temperament of the breed and the likely characteristics we can’t say for sure how they will fair. Working dogs bred and trained from the moment they are born for a specific job, like police dogs, still have a period of assessment and many don’t make the cut.
Our role is to help our puppies explore the different and positive ways they can use their natural talents and build on what our puppies enjoy.
Hounds might be well known for their nose but all dogs take in huge amounts of information about the world through their nose. Your dog’s nose has up to 300 million olfactory receptors compared to our pathetic in comparison 6 million. Plus the area of the dog’s brain used to organise and interpret the mass of receptors is 40 times larger than ours, imagine how much our feet smell to our dog, and they still love us!
They can determine a smells location because a dog processes receptor information from each nostril separately. This ability allows dogs to detect tiny reductions in the concentration of an odour over a period of time. This ability is utilised by tracking dogs to determine which direction a scent has moved (which way we walked along a path 3 days ago!) Your dog really is a walking sniff machine!
With such a natural talent it’s no wonder they want to stop at every lamppost and read their daily pee mail.
We can help focus that drive towards seeking scents that bring joy to our dogs while they are working and help them understand when we want them to head off nose down & tail wagging and when we really would like to move more than 5 paces from the front door!
You can do something as simple as hiding food for them to seek out as part of your daily routine or join a more formal training for scentwork. I’ve even started using ‘go sniff’ as a reward for good heelwork along pavements. Luckily many pathways have sections of grass verges alternating with driveways so we can swap between ‘heel’ and ‘go sniff’ as we go along our daily walks.
For puppies over the age of 18 months the challenge of agility can be much fun. The greatest benefit of this activity, for me, was the bond and team effort we built through learning better handling skills and really starting to understand how powerful our body language is for our dogs.
If their smelling ability is their #1 skill then reading body language is their second!
Dogs who meet each other for the first time will use posturing and body language to share their intentions with another dog. Body language is their preferred method of communication and only when that looks like it will fail do they get vocal.
Agility is all about the handler using their body language to communicate with their dog. Your dogs loves it because you are finally talking their language! They can suddenly understand the most complex commands and when it clicks the joy is as great for you as it is your dog.
Obedience & Rally
Although the Kennel club list these as two separate activities your dog will probably not know the human words for these so let’s consider them both at the same time! Like agility these both use a series of activities for your dog to master.
Again we are really building here a bond between handler and dog and the understanding of following hand signals and body language for a promised reward.
It is as close to ‘puppy play’ as us humans can get without rolling in the mud and splashing in puddles with our dog (which I am certain they would also enjoy!)
A dog who has playtime is a happy dog and will be more than happy to go home and relax after a fun packed session. For high energy dogs who seem always on the go and never stop Obedience and Rally offer something agility doesn’t, settled behaviours.
Handlers of working dogs will say that as much as their ‘on shift’ time is important so is their rest & relaxation. We humans would be very poorly if we worked 100 hours a week and never took time off to rest fully with broken sleep patterns all the time because we woke to every noise we heard. Our dogs deserve that same ‘off’ time too and these jobs really do offer that skill to our puppies.
Hound, field and working trials all offer dogs the chance to practice their natural talents at ‘work.’ You’ll probably find more Beagles at the hound trials than jumping over fences in the working trials and my guess is you want to spot a cocker spaniel you’ll find them waiting in a field somewhere.
It’s not that a Collie has never been brilliant at following a scent for miles it’s just that on average dogs fall somewhere in their breed spectrum. When you watch trials you’ll start to see the sophistication of the different skills and physicality of each breed in action.
Not many pugs enjoy a nine-foot long jump.
Within Trials you really get to see your dogs preferences regardless of their breed. Line up 100 Labradors and other than saying they will all sit for sausage I can’t tell you which will love retrieving most and which won’t bring you a beer from the fridge if there are 500 sausages on offer. We only get to know our dogs preferences when we go and explore the options for them.
Much like when small children get to go to swimming lessons, football practice and dance class and whilst most enjoy certain part some each some will hate them and some will become champions.
Working together with our dogs gives us all a purpose, especially our dogs. With a focused time to enjoy something we are good at we all feel better, happier and more relaxed. Some will simply enjoy the hobby, fitness and brain challenge that the practice brings. Some dogs will show a talent you cannot ignore and you might nurture that into the ring or competitions. From giving your terrier their own sandpit to dig up treats to having your Dogue de Bordeaux compete in working trials there are always ways to help you dog have a long and rewarding career.