We all want to have a happy and healthy dog in our lives - if you didn’t, you likely wouldn’t own one! As much of our lives as we spend with dogs, they are still a different species. What things can you do to help make your dog even happier?
1. Let Them Sniff
Some of us are stuck in having a dog walk right at our side when we go on a walk. If this is you, consider what walking your dog is really for - it should be to benefit your dog, right? If we didn’t want our dog to get something out of the walk, we could just go by ourselves!
There are absolutely ways to take our dog on a relaxing and controlled walk where they aren’t pulling us down the street, and they are still allowed to sniff and explore and engage that natural doggy part of their brain. One of my favorite ways to teach dogs to walk on a leash that allows them the freedom to sniff is to teach them to respond to leash pressure.
Dogs often pull and pull HARD when they are falling victim to the opposition reflex. If I push you, you push your body back to try and keep your balance. The same happens when dogs pull on the leash. Instead, you can teach your dog that when the leash has tension, they should come back closer to you. This will let you vary the length of your leash based upon where you are letting your dog sniff in order to keep them safe and well mannered but also allow their sniffing.
Not only is sniffing a natural dog behavior that our dogs love to enjoy (After all, they have a sense of smell about 100 times greater than ours. We smell chicken noodle soup, and they smell each ingredient!) but sniffing also lowers a dog’s blood pressure, according to recently published research. This means that this is especially important for hyperactive or worried dogs.
Try letting your dog guide your walk. Let them sniff along the way, and let them stop and sniff if they find something extra appealing! Don’t make your goal the distance that you travel, but the time your dog gets to be out of the house and exploring.
2. Ask for Consent to Pet
Did you realize not all dogs want your physical attention? Many dogs actually prefer to train or play or just be around you without hugs or pats. You can try a consent test to see what your dog prefers!
The Pat-Pet-Pause protocol goes like this:
This protocol helps keep your dog happy by showing your dog that you listen to them and understand what they are telling you. You can help your dog even more by having other family members and friends, or even strangers follow the steps.
3. Let Them Destroy!
Just like how sniffing is a natural dog behavior, destroying toys and shredding things can be natural for many dogs too. Giving them an outlet for this behavior is good for their happiness and mental health, but can also cut down on destruction that we don’t want.
Cheap stuffed toys from the pet store or even old thrift store stuffed animals can be a great way to let your dog exercise their destruction desire. Your dog should be supervised and you should always make sure that your dog is not eating the stuffing or other pieces. Give your dog the toy, let them destroy it, and pick it up and toss is when they’re done. Some of my dogs still enjoy playing with the fabric that originally contained the stuffing, so I will just toss the stuffing and insides and keep the fabric pieces for them to play with as well.
Other items that you can give your dog to shred and destroy include:
You can create a special place you always let your dog shred items in if you’re worried about it backfiring and increasing their desire to shred. Put the game on a cue, make sure you give the items to your dog using the cue, and then play the game for a specified amount of time in the same area each time you let your dog shred and destroy something. These boundaries will help your dog learn that they do get to destroy things - but only when it falls into a certain situation and rules!
4. Build a Dig Box
Another natural behavior that dogs like to partake in is digging! It’s also a point of concern for many dog owners, if their dog is digging up the garden or the yard. Just like with shredding and destruction games, giving your dog an outlet for digging can minimize digging that we don’t want in addition to giving you a happier dog!
Dig boxes can be outside or inside, and the size varies depending on your dog. Outdoor dig boxes might utilize wooden barriers or even a plastic kiddie pool filled with sand or dirt. If you are wanting to make an indoor dig box, shredded paper or fabric scraps will still let them dig around and burrow. You can hide treats and toys in dig boxes to encourage your dogs to use them.
For the tiniest of dogs, even a cat litter box might work well to create a dig box that is easy to clean and refill.
If you are using a dig box to redirect behavior you don’t like, hiding treats and toys will encourage them to dig in the newly designated location. In addition, when you catch your dog wanting to dig somewhere you don’t want a hole, you can move them to their dig box and encourage them to dig there.
Happy adventures on improving your dog’s happiness! What are some of your dogs favorite things to do? What do you do to keep your dog happy?
What was the name of the first dog you trained? For me, it's Mya. I have worked with her sweet lab mix personality since I was just 11 years old and Mya was 8 weeks old. Now, Mya is 12. Still sweet, but it's apparent age is catching up with her between her arthritis and recent diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction.
Mya's importance in my life is why MESSY has the M in the name - the M represents the dog that got me "into dogs," Mya.
For my friend, Antonia, that dog was named Snickers.
Antonia and I met in the 4-H Dog Project over a decade ago. While I was new to training dogs and figuring out what "showmanship class" even meant, Antonia and Snickers were crushing it already - they had been training and showing as a team for several years already and I remember wishing my own dog would just pay attention to me already! I'm grateful we had the chance to meet in the 4-H Dog Project, as it led us to a friendship as well as opening MESSY together.
The second S in MESSY represents Snickers, the dog that got Antonia "into dogs."
Antonia and Snickers showed me that reactive dogs aren't "bad" dogs. I learned that grumbly dogs needed a "bubble" of space, but also that training is a wonderful way to bond with our dogs. Even on rough days of training, I can still see Antonia smooching Snicker's face and saying "you bad dog!" in the most cheerful tone imaginable - teaching me to love and appreciate my dogs no matter what. I saw them have a lot of successes, and heard about others, including when they took the Champion at the State Dog Show in Obedience!
As we graduated 4-H, worked our way through college and jobs and relationships, we always had our two "first" dogs. Those first dogs represent a journey that we've been on since little fuzzy puppies came home to us as kids. Along that journey Antonia welcomed Eden into her life - the E in MESSY. The other S and the Y represent the dogs our friend Kennedy owns and grew with through her 4-H project and beyond - Sammy and Ton(y).
Even with the addition of other dogs, Snickers was always Antonia's constant. For the both of us, Snickers and Mya will forever be the dogs that all other dogs will be compared to and the dogs we will love for teaching us so much along our training journeys. Snickers and Mya represent our "crossover" dogs - the dogs that taught us to be kinder, to strive to be better owners, and to seek the most dog-friendly training methods.
As any dog owner knows, our dogs simply do not live long enough. Snickers passed away on December 30, 2019. She was just a few months shy of her 17th birthday.
I've been reflecting over the past few days about all that Snickers and Mya have given to Antonia and me, and grieving for my friend who is without her constant dog; her always dog; her first dog.
It is truly impossible to list all the ways that Snickers shaped who Antonia is as a person, her life path, and her friendships. I'm grateful to Snickers for bringing me a friend and a business partner for when MESSY was starting. Even now, in different states and with busy lives, I know I can bounce ideas for training and growing MESSY off of Antonia.
I hug Mya and Windigo a little tighter now, appreciating time we get to spend together as it comes and not taking it for granted.
Rest in peace, sweet Snick. Thanks for being a part of shaping my life, too.