All I Want for Christmas
Recently, I asked my puppy Jack what he thinks a dog’s wish list for Christmas would be. This is what he came up with. I have to say, I think his choices are brilliant!
1. Make time for just you and me.
I think this is a really important part of building a wonderful relationship with your dog. I also think it’s overlooked in a big way. I’m not meaning times that your dog cuddles with you on the couch while you read the paper, catch up on emails or get some work down on your laptop (exactly the position I’m in while I write this article).
What I’m encouraging you to do is to find an activity that both you and your dog enjoy and spend some time doing it together - just the 2 of you. If you have more than one dog, it can be difficult to spend quality time with each dog – but it’s well worth the effort.
It could be a simple thing like having a game of tug, playing hide and seek, or hiding a few treats around your living room and teach your dog how to find them. It could be an activity that you can do for a few moments each day – teaching your dog a new trick for example. It could even be cuddling – but just cuddling and enjoying being with each other – nothing else. The time you spend could be all day, an hour or even 15 minutes. It could be every day or just occasionally – but you should make the time often. I just think it’s important to spend moments with your dog when your attention and focus is all just his.
Jack and I have recently started taking some agility classes. Jack and I will never be agility stars - well Jack could be, but not me! We’re taking classes just for fun and we have no intention of competing, but it’s a great way to spend an hour just learning something new – just the 2 of us together. Good physical and mental exercise for both of us.
2. Make walks count.
There’s no question that most dogs enjoy walks – getting out and about, finding new smells, maybe having some off leash time to stretch their legs – what’s not to enjoy? What I often see is people walking their dogs while chatting with friends, drinking coffee, texting on their phones or walking their children to school. Neither the human nor the dog is present in the moment with each other. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone walking their dog where they were just chatting to their dog, smiling and having fun with each other. It’s like a job that needs to be done and then we can get on with the rest of the day: dog walked, check; next, groceries.
I really wish people would use their walks as a way to take a break themselves and enjoy the companionship of getting out and about together – put your phone in your pocket. Most of us spend a large part of our day doing many things out of the house, but our dog’s world is really very small. This one walk could be the only time they get out each day. If you’re someone that frequently takes your dog along for other activities, that’s great. But try and make at least one walk a day more important and meaningful for both you and your dog.
Practice some active and fun exercises during your walk – Recalls, Hand Targets, even Hide and Seek behind trees if your dog is off leash. Occasionally stop and toss some treats in the grass and teach your dog to use his nose to find them.
If you have a reactive dog or a dog that pulls uncomfortably on leash, then make a commitment to find a good positive trainer to help you solve these issues so you can both enjoy your walks. The training, itself, can become part of your walks and should be enjoyable for both of you.
3. Let me do the things I love to do.
I think this is an important one. I love to read and I would hate not having time to simply sit down for an hour and read a book. Luckily I can make the time myself and not rely on someone else to make the time for me. Our dogs aren’t so lucky – everything they get to have or do relies entirely on us making those opportunities for them.
Do you know what your dog absolutely loves to do? And I mean something that causes him to just light up, act super silly where the joy shining from his eyes is clearly visible – that kind of love. In my experience, these are often the things that dogs love to do but humans don’t like: chase squirrels (birds, other dogs, children, livestock), run free, destroy toys (couches, beds, pillows, laundry), dig in the dirt (couch, flower beds, lawns), chew on or eat things they shouldn’t (chair legs, firewood, shoes, socks, baseboards).
I think it’s important that we allow our dogs opportunities to indulge in what they truly get joy out of doing. I used to have a dog that would get a new stuffedtoy, immediately take it to her bed and just rip it to absolute shreds in less than 10 minutes. It made a huge mess and seemed absolutely pointless to me as the new toy was now garbage, but she clearly just loved doing it. Every Christmas we’d get her a new stuffy to destroy and I really regret now that we didn’t do it more often.
Now I’m not suggesting that we allow our dogs to chase wildlife, destroy gardens, or chew our furniture, but we do need to find creative and appropriate ways to give our dogs outlets for their greatest joys. We certainly indulge ourselves in this way and our dogs more than deserve the same opportunities. For diggers – think digging pit; for chasers – think flirt pole or fetch; for runners – teach solid recalls, take agility, find fenced areas to play in. Be creative and do some research on what others have done. Social media has some great positive training sites to join to get some creative ideas from.
Jack absolutely loves, loves, loves stuffed toys – the softer the better. He doesn’t immediately destroy them but when he does he also tries to consume them – a potentially deadly activity. For some time we simply stopped buying him stuffy toys. Then one day it occurred to me how really awful this was for him and how lazy it was of me! He has lots of toys but none of the ones he really, truly enjoys.
To be honest, he is so silly with a new toy and I get such a kick out of watching him that I’m robbing myself of that joy too. So, my current training program involves teaching him to be gentler with his toys and to stop eating them. It’s not an easy task, but it can be done and we are making great headway.
His favorites: Chicken #1 (3 months old) has been sewn up 7 times but is still largely intact, Chicken #2 (1 month old) is still looking pretty good (obviously I’m getting better at my training)!
He still gets the occasional piece of fabric off but we’ve made solid progress trading these for better things andhe, more often than not, will spit it out in anticipation of some really good treat.
4. Give me something to do when I’m alone.
People that have or have had dogs with separation anxiety are completely focused on and really understand the importance of this because they have no choice. If you can easily leave your dog at home, go to work, go out for dinner or spend an evening at your friend’s house, you’re pretty fortunate because many dog owners struggle with this.
However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Or at least it doesn’t mean you should without making it just that much easier, more tolerable and even more fun for your dog.
When I was a kid and my parents went out for the evening, my Mom always made or ordered something special for us for dinner, rented a movie for us or gave us some special activity to do while they were gone. We may have had a babysitter if we were too young to be alone, but she still made sure that when they were out, it was somehow a bit of a treat for us. I don’t recall being worried about them going out, but it was nice to look forward to what we might have as a treat when they did.
The reality is that we don’t really know how our dogs feel about being left alone because we can’t ask them. For dogs who seem to be okay being left alone, adding a something special into the experience simply bolsters that skill. For dogs who are a bit anxious even though they aren’t destructive, giving them something to do can only help them feel less anxious and more comfortable.
I’ve always taught my dogs the skill of being left alone but I’ve also had dogs who change with the passing of time and become more anxious as they age or get ill, blind or deaf. I think it’s worth getting into the habit of giving your dog something to do whenever you leave. It’s not difficult and it could be really helpful in ways you aren’t even aware of. At the very least, it’s a nice thing to do and you love your dog, right?
My dogs always have at least one and often more than one treat-dispensing toy to enjoy when I’m gone. These days, the choices are endless and you can easily find something that works with your living situation. For me it’s a filled chew toy plus something that has dry treats in it and needs to be rolled around to release its goodies. Always available are antlers or chew sticks too. The toys are always empty when I return, so I know my dogs appreciate it. A sign that I interpret as a lack of anxiety is that my dogs don’t come racing to the door when I get home – they just give me a “wave” from their comfy spot on the couch or a happy tail wag as they continue to work on their toy.
5. Be my advocate.
This is an extremely important part of your relationship with your dog. Be his advocate, have his back, help him when he needs it – however you want to phrase it – be aware of your dog’s emotional state. Avoid putting him in situations he isn’t prepared for and be supportive when he needs your help. I would even go as far as to say that this one concept will make or break your chances of acquiring truly solid training skills with your dog.
In my experience, when you are trying to help a dog with a behaviour issue and you do so in a positive, supportive and thoughtful way it’s very obvious to the dog that you are trying to help him. When you make an obvious and consistent effort to help your dog, then he appears to try harder to help himself, relaxes more easily and begins to look to you for guidance and direction – you’re a team. When you work together as a team, good things happen; when you try and force your dog to do or to not do something, things always fall apart and eventually get worse – at least for him.
There are many ways to be an advocate for your dog, these are just a few:
- If you have a dog who is fearful of or reactive to people or dogs, make a point of finding and keeping a distance that’s more comfortable for your dog and actively help him through his fears. Get some help from an experienced positive trainer to make sure you’re on the right track. (Check out my Blog on Techniques for Over-Arousal and Reactivity in Dogs)
- If you want to take your dog with you everywhere you go, then teach him to be comfortable everywhere you go. Don’t just expect him to be able to handle everything without any preparation. Elevators, slippery floors or staircases, large and loud populated venues, hotel rooms – all of these things are very foreign to our dogs without pre-training some level of comfort. Just because it’s “family day” in the community does not mean your dog will automatically feel right at home in a large and noisy crowd of people.
- Don’t be that person with the “it’s okay, he’s friendly” dog. Ensure that your dog is friendly and that you have verbal control over your dog before letting him off leash. If he’s not friendly or well trained, then get help with that. Don’t expect other people and dogs to tolerate your ill-mannered dog, and don’t put your dog in the position of getting unnecessary and negative feedback from people and dogs – it’s not fair to anyone.
6. Provide me with regular enrichment.
Just as we spend a lot of time and money providing ourselves with enrichment after the workday is done, our dogs deserve the same benefit. Dogs derive the same benefits we do from appropriate and enjoyable physical and mental stimulation. In fact, I would go as far as to say it’s critical for dogs and should be a requirement of every pet owner – not just food, water and shelter – but also enrichment. Dogs are, after all, captive animals. They are incapable of going out and finding their own enrichment and are forced to rely on us for everything.
Enrichment can be many things, ideally a combination of many things:
Regular walks that involve time for our dogs to amble, sniff, run and explore at their own speed;
Mentally stimulating activities. There is an endless array of treat dispensing toys available for meals and entertainment. Get creative with some DIY ideas – social media sites are full of helpful suggestions. Look up Snuffle Mats and see if you can make one for your dog;
Learning new things. Take a training class, teach some new tricks or skills that require your dog to make some choices and use their brains. Think of some fun training challenges that aren’t just regular obedience: teach your dog to “go right”, “go left”, heel on any side, forward or backward, “back up”, “slow” and “fast” walking; (We have lots of training options at Dog Partners and you can even customize your own class! Dog Partners Class Options.)
Getting something new. Buy or make a new toy or see what might be new and different for your dog to safely chew on. I often make use of squeakers out of old toys by knotting them into a pair of old jeans or socks for a cheap and easy new toy;
Visiting new places. Take a walk in a different neighborhood or meet friends at a different trail or dog friendly park.
Not everybody celebrates Christmas and not everybody has time off during the holidays. So while this article is Christmas-themed, it’s not just for Christmas - it’s a wish list for every day for your dogs from Jack and I.
Training should be something to do with your dog, not to your dog! Keep it fun and keep it positive.