Gimme A Break!

Okay, so we all know that the average dog is overweight and under-exercised. This is a fact that just can’t be disputed. We also know that many a behavior problem could be resolved by providing more exercise, mental stimulation and training.

However, in my own practice, I often come across dogs who have been swung all the way to the other side of the pendulum. They get lots of exercise, attend classes, go to daycare, frequent the dog park, go everywhere with their owners and participate in at least one sport. I call them the over-achievers.

I am definitely talking about extremes here, but I’m seeing more and more of it. They are adrenaline junkies. They are constantly running in high gear and always thinking about what comes next. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, they frantically run from the roses to the daffodils to the marigolds to the hyacinths and more, more, more!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the normal behavior of certain breeds of dogs. I live with two Jack Russell Terriers, and I totally appreciate their normal way of dealing with the world. In fact, it’s why I love them! They are much like me with their work hard, play hard attitude. What I’m talking about is the dog who never has down time or hasn’t learned what to do with a calm moment.

The complaints I hear from the owners of these dogs are that the dogs are needy, never satisfied, always bored and exhausting to the owner. The behaviors may include stealing laundry and other items to induce a game of chase, counter surfing, whining, barking, jumping on people, nudging them constantly, pacing and wanting outside and back in, to the point of excess.

Of course, these are the same problems seen with dogs who are under-exercised, under-stimulated and need some basic manners training. So it would make perfect sense for the wise dog owner to believe that more exercise, stimulation and training would be the right thing to do. Their intentions are very good, and most times they are right. The problem occurs, I believe, when there is a lack of balance in the program. Too much of a good thing is an accurate description.

When I suggest the concept of balance to these clients, I am often met with confusion. They themselves are often over-worked, over-scheduled and over-stressed. It simply hasn’t occurred to them that they might need to do LESS with their dog. Less is not in their vocabulary any more than the word balance. They want to know what to DO.

So, what to do? The answers to the problem vary. Maybe a choice needs to be made between agility and fly-ball. Perhaps they need to cut the dog park visits down to twice a week. It could be that one training class at a time is enough. Sometimes the dog just needs a quiet place to get away from the small children in the home.

I often ask owners to institute a scheduled nap time. Remember, these are not dogs who live in crates while their owners are at work. These are dogs who are with people 24/7 and have lots of scheduled activities. I want the dog to spend at least one hour a day, in a crate or otherwise, with a good chew item, just relaxing. I often assign the task of skipping the fetch game and instead watching a sunset while the dog happily extracts something wonderful from a well-stuffed Kong.

Teaching the owners the art of Kong or hollow bone stuffing is an important part of the process, because I have found that a dog who knows the pleasure of chewing is a dog who knows how to relax. Owners who know what a good chew item is, and can expertly stuff them, have dogs who like to chew.

As a dog daycare owner, I believe activity and socialization are vital to a dog’s well-being. I want dogs to go everywhere with their owners, be a part of society, have fun, play together, compete against one another and frolic freely at the dog park. My only concern is that all of these are in moderation and balanced with calm, quiet moments in which the dog can rest his mind and his muscles.

Believe it or not, asking some clients to slow down along with their dogs can be like pulling teeth (which also requires sitting still). While other owners have a tough time making it out the door for one short walk, these clients can’t imagine sitting by the fire with their best buddy, reading a book and gently stroking their dog’s head. They desperately need balance as much as their poor canines!

At the end of the day (which is when the sun sets, in case you hadn’t noticed), both human and canine can truly benefit from a little rest and relaxation. I suggest simply sitting and listening to your dog breathe. In fact, breathe with him. Listen to his heart beat. Listen to your own. Heck, go ahead and whisper sweet nothings into his furry little ear. You’ll be more relaxed, your dog will be relaxed and I believe your relationship will be enhanced.