MY (FORMER) MONOLOGUE-BASED RELATIONSHIP
I dated a man for a short period who would regularly buy me flowers a couple of times a week.
They always came in a vase of some sort, and the flowers themselves lasted anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
When the flowers first arrived, I said thank you, accepted them, and displayed them.
He was just following the unwritten American-Woman-Basic-Dating-Monologue; women like flowers, especially in a dating scenario, so to date correctly, buy a woman flowers. This will make the woman happy and she will like you.
Perfectly reasonable basic blueprint to start with when you’re in new relationship, right?.
But I detest store-bought flowers and contrived romantic gestures. I am not a basic woman and, as one might predict, I tired of this ritual the second time and politely shared my wish for it to stop. It didn’t.
As the weeks went on I felt moderately irritated, frustrated, and definitely unseen. So I gave flowers away, recycled vases, and sometimes passively walked past deliveries on my doorstep in a tiny protest.
As it continued, I more directly expressed my wishes. But the flowers kept coming. Several weeks later, I simply moved on and the flower-giver did, too.
It wasn’t just the flowers, of course, but the general, one-size-fits-all women theme was pervasive. Like so many, this relationship was built on a monologue, not a dialogue.
While I have the sublime freedom to leave situations I don’t like (and did), it’s reasonable that if I didn’t, if I’d stayed and this pattern continued, my irritation and frustration would build and turn into anxiety or depression. Staying in a disconnected relationship is common, but certainly not ideal.
What does this have to do with your dog?
THE DOG OWNERSHIP BLUEPRINT
There’s also an unwritten, American-Basic-Dog-Ownership-Monologue historically followed here in the United States; after acquiring dog provide food, water, shelter, regular exercise, and ideally, basic training. Simple.
This is the basic blueprint, just as the American-Woman-Basic-Dating blueprint above. It’s a one-sided script.
Most of us follow the script by buying premium dog food, comfy bedding and treats, toys, and other booty. We may walk our dog regularly for that exercise bit, or frequent a dog park, use a dog walker, or drop our pal at one of the many dog daycares in the area. Some of us play fetch at the local park or down the hall and many of us skirt the exercise bit because we have a yard, after all.
These are wonderful things, all part of the evolved relationship so many of us share with our dogs today. The love and consideration we’ve given to this four-legged family members is to be celebrated.
This reflects the steady evolution in the human/canine companion relationship in the past several decades and there is no doubt pet dogs enjoy a more comfortable life today than ever before.
This is good.
CHANGE MONOLOGUE WITH YOUR DOG TO A DIALOG
BUT. In our effort to make him comfy and provide for him we’ve made one critical mistake; we’ve forgotten to tailor this standard, basic dog blueprint to our dog, this guy right here in front of us.
Women like flowers, dogs like fetch. Mediocrity achieved.
We have to change the monologue we have with our dogs into a dialogue.
Just as the unwritten American-Woman-Basic-Dating-Monologue will be successful in building relationships with some women, the basic one-size-fits-all dog exists and the basic dog recipe of care will work for him. I’ve met him maybe twice, and odds are your dog isn’t him. None of mine have been. Most aren’t.
While doing what we’re “supposed” to do by the manual, our dog is actually moderately unhappy on a regular basis, and likely suffers from some level of anxiety (and in some cases, depression) related to his personal needs being different than what we have been told and are lovingly, but blindly, implemented.
NOT ALL DOGS LOVE PLAYING FETCH
We’ve been told dogs love fetch. Many do. But, even if we have a dog who enthusiastically returns the ball no matter how many times it’s been thrown, some dogs find this enjoyable while others, often depending on their breed origins are actually distressed by it.
For example, the retriever is genetically designed to find and retrieve things. Most that I know love to head out after a ball and bring it back to their owner. For some, it’s even better if there’s water involved. For others, not so much.
But, consider the herding type dog; collies, shepherds, and the like. They are genetically designed to keep all their “things” together such as sheep or cattle.
While a herding dog will literally collapse from exhaustion from retrieving a ball as many times as their owner throws it, try starting a dialogue and consider what that action looks like to the herder; each time he rounds up the “thing” and loyally brings it to the owner, the owner throws it away again!
Watch a border collie’s face when you do this. He will look shocked and will run after the renegade ball to bring it back with a almost obsessive determination.
This is not healthy for either the dog or the relationship.
ONE EXERCISE PROGRAM DOES NOT FIT ALL DOGS
We’ve been fooled to think that dogs come suited for a one-size-fits-all exercise program that focuses only on physical exercise as the basis for mental health.
It’s as silly as thinking that only running three miles a day will satisfy us physically and keep us emotionally balanced.
No yoga, or reading, or knitting, or painting. No lifting weights, biking, golfing, or bouncing a ball.
Imagine being denied all your favorite activities, the ones that keep you happy and sane, because the person in charge of you decided that running is the thing.
Soon your mental and emotional health would suffer. Your connection to said person, and eventually, your physical health would deteriorate as well.
This is exactly the situation we’ve put our dogs in today, and we can do better.
STIMULATE YOUR DOG’S BODY AND BRAIN
We are starting to recognize that exercise for dogs needs to address both their physical and emotional needs not only in quantity but in quality. To achieve this, we need to tweak the generic dog owner manual to provide both mental and physical stimulation in appropriate doses.
We’ve come to understand that relationship strength between dog and owner is, in fact, paramount in emotional and behavioral soundness. You build this strength via back and forth communication.
To start, forget the assumptions you have about your dog beyond basic husbandry.
Just because he brings the ball back doesn’t mean he likes fetch. Just because he lays around on the couch most of the day doesn’t mean he’s not starving for a scent game or search or a chance to jog next to you on your run.
Dogs easily fall into the roles available to them. After all, just because a woman takes your flowers doesn’t mean she likes them.
Also, just like people, dogs need to use their bodies and brains in activities that bring them satisfaction and peace. A thoughtful approach to physical and emotional health launches the mediocre, monologue-based dog/human relationship into one based on a mutual dialogue.
LOOK AT YOUR DOG. NO, REALLY LOOK AT HIM.
Next, take a moment, just five seconds, and look at your dog. Look at the shape of his body, his coat, size, shape of his head, those teeth, and that amazing snout. If you know his breed, consider his working origins.
If he’s a herding type, he needs to herd stuff. If he’s a terrier, it’s hunting and scavenging small, quickly moving critters. If he’s a hound, that nose is in overdrive 24 hours a day. If he’s a sighthound, he needs to move fast and far. If he’s a combo, it’s a grab bag! If you know your dog’s breed, but don’t know the breed origins, read up, find out.
If you don’t know his breed, his body structure and movement can tell you a lot.
Is his nose long and straight, his skull narrow and fine? Bet he likes to chase things that move fast.
Nose short and stubby, eyes on the front of his face rather than more towards the outside? Probably less driven by visual stimuli such as fast moving things or fetch.
Does he crouch and stalk? That guy needs “sheep” to collect up. What of his chest? Deep and substantial? Built for running?Shallow and round? Ground work or manual movement (pushing or pulling objects).
Musculature long and sinewy? Covering distance fast and light. Shorter and heavier? Built for strength but lower stamina. Are his feet high and tight or flat and tough, webbed, compact or hare-like? Consider digging, swimming, walking on uneven terrain, or snow.
Dogs’ have bodies built to achieve optimal physical and behavioral health, so we should start by looking at who he is and what his needs are.
Fortunately, you have several options to simulate a dog’s drive activities that you can use at home or in your neighborhood.
SIMULATING YOUR DOG’S DRIVE ACTIVITIES
It’s not unreasonable to think that some herding types benefit from fetch, but a great number don’t (again, even if they engage) and luckily there are games that can take the place of fetch but give you a much greater bang for your relationship buck.
The Herding Game:
Christina Cass of the EpicDog Training Academy in Scotland has produced a beautiful video of this particular exercise in which a dog engages multiple origin drives at once.
I love that this can be accomplished in a relatively small area and it takes little preparative training or set up. Click here to see how it works.
Trieball, also known as Sheep Ball or Drive Ball:
In this activity, your dog learns how to collect a number of balls placed in a broad space and guide them back to you or into a group or goal.
While it takes a little more room than the Herding Game, it’s super fun to watch and a crazy good drive-energy burner. It also takes just a little preparatory training and only minimal set up effort.
While official Trieball can get quite serious with competition and regulations, don’t be discouraged. It’s become a popular casual game played by companions everywhere.
You can find plenty of easy-to-find videos on YouTube showing how to play the game once basic behavior is installed. I recommend Donna Hill’s video as an excellent tutorial for where to start.
Terriers go bananas for rooting out vermin and prey and often like to shout about it. You may also find your terrier with a penchant for digging.
Just like it sounds, you simulate a hunt by placing a rodent in a container hidden among obstacles such as bales of hay.
Terriers engage their compounded drives to find the rodent in the way they’re designed. The result is a happy, connected, pup.
The popularity of barn hunts in the U.S. is growing, so you can find them in many areas with a simple web search.
If the idea of a rat in a PVC container isn’t your cup of tea, Mouse is a low-prep game that uses a dog’s own kibble to directly engage drive energy.
Imagine a tiny game of kick ball with your fingers as kickers, the kibble as a ball, and your dog as a focused, waiting outfielder.
To play, sit on the floor with your dog’s kibble in a bowl in front of you. Take out one piece of kibble, set it in front of you as if you’re going to finger-kick a tiny ball, and flick it away from you a few feet. He’ll jet after and grab it.
Repeat this a few times until he realizes you’re always going to shoot for some distance from you and hanging near you isn’t as great as him standing facing you, waiting to “catch” the kibble when you flick it.
Go slowly, angle each flick differently, pause between each one, and wait for him to be completely still and engaged before you flick.
Tug, Flirt Poles, and Digging:
The game of Tug, previously taboo, has finally gained acceptance as a valuable drive-energy lowering tool as well as a powerful way to get a grip on predatory aggression and drive.
You should remember, however, you must have rules for playing Tug. This video from Dr. Ian Dunbar shows how to play the game and what rules your dog must follow.
Legal digging can also be a terrier’s dream come true and the internet is jam packed with examples with a simple image search for “dog digging pit.”
The flirt pole, when used properly, is another big bang-for-your-buck activity you can do with your dog. To make one, fasten a flag or lure to the end of a pole and wave it around for your dog to chase.
Playing with a flirt pole provides both mental stimulation and exercise for a dog simultaneously. Drew Webster has a great video on the game.
Don’t forget that a dog needs to be taught a release or drop before playing tug or using a flirt pole. This video by Sympawtico Dog Training shows how you can do it.
These dogs gain a tremendous amount of mental, physical, and behavioral soundness when allowed to use their stunning noses.
While the phrase sounds daunting, it’s super easy to start. Latch your dog to a comfy harness or flat leash, use a long line of 15-20 feet, and open the door. Let his nose guide you both and see where it takes you.
Even better, pop into a little brush or less-traveled path. As you let him sniff on a regular basis add a sit at the beginning of a favorite sniff area. Then ask him to wait a moment until you release him with a “go!”.
By building on this formal start cue, he will now wait a moment for you to hide something for him to sniff out.
Equally simple is a basic search. Begin at home with a Kong or other sturdy work-to-eat tool. Before you lay it down for your dog, say “dinner” one time but not hiding it yet.
Once he associates the word with getting food, set the tool down a little further from him each time requiring that he remain still as you do (use a sit/stay or simple stay).
Soon you’ll be able to leave the room and hide the item while he waits out of sight. Your phrase, “dinner”, releases him for a fun way to go after his food.
There are, of course, many more origin-specific games to play with your dog, but the suggestions here are an excellent start.
Remember, keep a dialogue with your dog and focus on the relationship rather than the behavior.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.