Living Life Together: A short guide to making life with your dog better
When you looked into that furry face something clicked and you knew it was meant to be. What did life with your dog look like as you drove home together? For me I imagined a companion, someone who would lounge at my feet when I read a book or worked on a paper or blog. I wanted someone who would snuggle on the couch or in bed. I wanted a walking companion. When I looked at my puppy I imagined the future. But we weren’t there…yet.
Even after teaching the basics – sit, down, come, crate – my pup needed to express her “dogginess” in ways that were compatible with our family’s lifestyle. She did things that made me nuts, like digging, pilfering through the trash, chewing a hole in the bathroom wall, and the list could go on! It was not what I’d imagined when I said “my home is your home”. Once we worked out a few things, like digging in the old sandbox and providing interesting chews life improved dramatically. As I write, my dogs are lounging around the room with me. Life got better!
Here are a few ideas for letting your dogs express “dogginess” while living peacefully with you:
Dogs enjoy digging, some more than others. Digging a hole is a normal way to cool off on hot days, hide a bone, find a mole, or escape for an adventure. Take a proactive step and create an approved doggy digging zone. Fill a plastic kiddie pool or clean used tire with dirt or sand. Hide a few interesting toys and praise your dog for getting into the zone to dig.
Dogs chew; it’s a hard wired behavior that lasts throughout their lifetime. In general puppies and adolescents chew more often and more vigorously than adults and seniors. Puppies seem to be chewing machines chewing on anything and everything, but adolescents can do far more damage to household items. Dogs use chewing to relieve stress and anxiety, which is why trainers suggest putting safe chews in the crate before leaving the puppy for the day. Providing a variety of safe and appropriate objects to chew will save shoes, furniture and your sanity. Keep in mind that what you think is a great thing to chew may be different than what your dog thinks is great. Try new things often, making a mental note of preferences. When shopping for chews consider size, shape, texture and material. Opt for non-toxic, puppy safe items such as Kong Classic, Kong puzzles, bully sticks, antlers, leather toys, rope toys, and bones. There are varying opinions about all these items. Please check anything your puppy chews for cracks, splinters or missing pieces, throwing items away that have been damaged.
Isolation is not much fun for anyone. There are times when puppy needs to be alone (with appropriate things to occupy her). Most people work or have commitments that take them out of the home, leaving puppy alone. That’s fine. When leaving puppy – confined to a crate – make sure she has great stuff to work on while in her crate (stuffed Kongs, antler, bully stick, soft toy for snuggling, and a towel or blanket to nest in for naps). You may find that at night she cries while in her crate alone while you’re in your room. Solution? Move her crate (or put a second crate) in your room so she can sleep near you. You and your pup will both feel better with a full night’s rest. (FACT: Allowing your dog to sleep in your room does not teach your dog to be dominant.)
Barking. Dogs bark as a form of communication. Barking can communicate many things, such as alerting to change, fear, anxiety, play, attention seeking, and boredom. In reality, most people don’t want their dog to never bark, they just want appropriate barking. Deciding how long and under what circumstances your dog may bark and then teaching alternative options will go a long way toward allowing your dog to be a dog and preventing nuisance barking. Example: Anyone knocking on my door will be greeted by barking dogs. I’m ok with that. I don’t expect my dogs to have x-ray vision and see who’s at the door AND determine if the person is friend or stranger. A dog barking at me to get my attention for a game of tug while I’m working is not ok. However, when one of my dogs brings a toy into the office and lies down quietly to wait for me to take a play break you can be sure I’m up and playing, which reinforces the polite behavior I DO want. We have scheduled walks, training, play and enrichment. When I sit down to work I know their needs are met and there’s no reason to bark at me for attention.
Trashing. Dogs love it. The human equivalent is shopping the clearance section or bargain hunting – the goal is finding something amazing. Right? It’s no different for your dog. After dog proofing the trash (moving the trash can out of reach or purchasing a stainless steel trashcan with a lid) give your dog a busy box. It’s the “legal” equivalent to trashing. Take a small to medium size box (depending on the size of your dog), add a smear of something smelly & sticky on the bottom of the box (peanut butter, spray cheese, cream cheese, etc), add a couple of toys (squeaky toy, ball, chew), stuff a small towel (or better, newsprint) into the box, close it up and present it to your pup. Then walk away. He may be confused at first (“my human is letting me trash?! Will I get yelled at if I investigate??”) Eventually, curiosity will win out, and he will thoroughly enjoy this new “legal” trashing. He’ll also think his human finally understands him.
Food time should be active and enjoyable. Snarfing down a bowl of kibble in 3 seconds hardly qualifies as either. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
Stuff a Kong – A Kong is a must have for all dogs! Layer dog food, pumpkin, plain full fat yogurt, diced or shredded veggies (carrots, green beans, kale, spinach, chard, romaine, squash, peas, parsley, sweet potatoes), chopped fruit (blueberries, raspberries, apples, bananas, melon, pears) and close the top with No-sugar peanut butter, cream cheese, or coconut oil. For hot days prepare the Kong the night before and freeze it.
Muffin tin – In each muffin cup place something sticky in the bottom (pumpkin, sweet potatoes, yogurt, or No-sugar peanut butter, cream cheese, or coconut oil). Fill with food. For an extra challenge top several or all muffin cups with a ball so that your dog needs to puzzle out how to get to his food.
Cookie sheet – spread food on a cookie sheet and let your pup chase the food. For additional challenge, smear sticky food on part of the cookie sheet before adding food.
Milk carton – wash a milk carton and cut a hole a little larger than your puppy’s snout. Fill with food and let puppy work for his food.
You can purchase a variety of food puzzles online or at pet stores.
A word about “table food”: good quality dog food contains “table food” – meat, eggs, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and probiotics. It’s a myth that feeding a dog human food will teach them to beg. What will teach them to beg is reinforcing the begging behavior, which often happens at the table or wherever the human is eating. Remember, your dog is an opportunist. Your dog wants to be with you and do things with you and your dog can smell the delicious food in your hand. Of course he wants to share! Another option for the begging dog is to use it as an opportunity to reinforce a behavior you’ve been working on together. For example, you want your dog to improve her down-stay. Cue the down and wait for the amount of time you’ve worked up to – then reinforce with a little nibble. In an instant you turned undesirable behavior (begging) into a training moment (down-stay practice). Way to go!
There are foods that are unhealthy or toxic to dogs: onions, grapes/raisins, chocolate and artificial sweeteners are the primary concerns. Also avoid fried foods and caffeine. For a more complete list, download the ASPCA’s Animal Poison app.
A final thought…
There were a few expectations that I had to let go to achieve peace. None of my dogs ever grasped the concept of sleeping in on days off or avoiding the mud puddles when out for a walk. And that’s ok.
Have you found other ways to help your dog express his or her true “dogginess”? We’d love to hear about it.