Natural Instincts

Date June 30, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Shopping


I once lived next door to a dog who every morning would charge out his front door to retrieve the morning newspaper. Head held high, his quarry firmly grasped in jaw, the plucky little mutt would then trot swiftly back inside to deposit the paper at his master's feet. Although his elderly owner rarely walked him, the dog had one invaluable outlet: he had a job.

While scientists aren't exactly certain when human beings first recognized the helpful qualities of canis lupus, eventually domesticating it into canis lupus familiaris, they have a pretty good idea why. Because of their social and predatory instincts, canines made wonderful workers. No fools when it comes to exploiting the power of the pack, wolves in turn probably allowed this domesticated partnership in exchange for safety and free food.

As the years passed, we humans bred dogs for increasingly specialized purposes: to pull our sleds, hunt and retrieve our game, protect our children, herd our livestock, and serve as watchful companions as we colonized the wild and lonesome spaces of the world. Then, as life became increasingly industrialized and urbanized, dog as worker became dog as companion and today's modern, citified canines have effectively gone into retirement. But that doesn't mean they no longer heed the call of their ancestral instincts. Just as we humans seek to remain vital, active and purposeful long into our own retirements, so too must our former hunters, pullers and guarders be given the same mental and physical stimulation.

In her groundbreaking examination of the human and canine relationship, The Culture Clash, noted dog trainer Jean Donaldson says it right up front: "The bulk of dog behavior can be traced to their identity as predators and beings who are programmed to be constantly around others to survive."€ No matter how big a couch potato, she says, your dog still possesses the instinct to stalk, chase, hunt, chew and dissect and it is imperative that you give him an outlet for these instincts.

How to do that? Donaldson suggests a variety of games, hide and seek being one of the easiest and most fun. First, train your dog to sit and stay outside the room in which you'll hide a desired object-either a treat or a beloved toy. Initially, hide the object someplace easy, then release the dog from the sit/stay, bring him into the room and encourage the search in an excited, high pitched voice- "where's your toy?"€ or "go get it!"€ works great. Make sure there's motivation for the search: once found, the dog gets to eat the treat, play with the toy, or fetch the ball. And praise the dog heartily as soon as he finds the object. You can even play hide and seek outside and hide chew toys and treats for your dog to find while you're away.

Other games that are equally fun and challenging include fetch, spring pole (where a dog essentially plays tug of war with itself), and dissection and chewing activities, where you hide a treat inside a Kong or tie up a dog biscuit inside a rag. The more knots, the better. Your dog could spend all day working his way to the treat.

Carl Lopez, an Albuquerque-based dog trainer who owns and operates Paws Up, also believes in providing dogs with daily predatory outlet games (the exception being tug of war: "It pits dog against human, which is never a good idea."€), as well as rigorous exercise that in many cases approaches the level of work.

"If all you're doing is walking your dog a few minutes a day, you're getting off lightly,"€ he says. "You have to engage all facets of their lives."€

Working-type exercise, says Lopez, not only benefits the dog physically, it also aides in bond building and cognitive development. Think of it as the difference between running on a treadmill and playing a game of golf. The treadmill works the heart, but golf also engages the mind and hones social skills.

Breed and drive will give you a clue as to which job is right for which dog. Got an energetic pit bull with a Vin Diesel build? Harness him up to a garden cart the next time you do yard clean up or let him pull you on a pair of cross country skis or roller blades. Living with a high endurance breed like a Husky or Australian Shepherd? Hitch "€˜em up with a doggie food and water pack and go for a hike. And what about those raring-to-go retrievers? They can also be taught to fetch newspapers and bring in the grocery bags. One woman I know even taught hers to turn off all the lights in the house each evening before bedtime.

Far from being abusive, says Lopez, working your dog is actually good for it. "Like us, a dog's sense of well-being is derived from their job and their role in the family. Remember, dogs are pack-oriented. If you fail to treat them that way, they won't behave."€

Sporting events and competitions are also terrific mental and physical outlets. These include statewide events sanctioned by numerous national dog organizations in agility, herding, tracking and obedience. To learn, the Albuquerque Canine College and Sandia Dog Obedience Club in Albuquerque and Paw Print Kennels in Santa Fe, to name just a few, all offer classes in one or more of these events. And groups like Albuquerque's Southwest Agility Team provide members with additional support, training tips, and up-to-the-minute information on all the latest trials.

Likewise, if you've got a super energized and social dog, you might want to check out the growing sport of flyball. Thrilling and fast-paced, flyball is a relay team sport in which dogs run down a course, hit a box at the end, catch the ball that shoots out and race back to the handler. In Albuquerque, members of High Desert Sundogs meet once a week for an hour and a half of flyball training and compete in North American Flyball Association tournaments throughout the country. The group's director, Liz Goldwin, says the sport has been a godsend for her high-energy shepherd mix. "She was so active, I kept taking her to various classes until I found flyball. It wore her out and gave her a sense of purpose."€

Weight pull is another rapidly growing dog sport. Samara Weidner, coordinator for the International Weight Pull Association's Region 9 (which includes the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska) says the sport accommodates a variety of dog breeds and sizes. "There isn't a typical body type or structure in weight pull,"€ she explains. "We've got anything from a ten pound Dachshund to a 100 pound malamute."€ And, she says, the physical benefits are unsurpassed. "It's a great muscle builder, which is very important to maintaining healthy joints."€ She reports that even dogs with hip problems can benefit from pulling.

Of course, dogs continue to work for us in professional capacities as well. So if you think you've got an extra special Fido or Fifi on your hands, check out the possibility of working search and rescue through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) program, getting your dog certified in therapy through the national program offered by the Delta Society or trained in service and assistance through Santa Fe's Desert Academy.

The bottom line is, no matter how urbanized or how attached to their spot on the sofa, all dogs benefit from exercising their natural instincts in some manner. We reap the rewards as well, in the form of happy, healthy and well-behaved dogs that serve as daily reminders of the value and beauty of the centuries old human-canine bond.

Before becoming involved in any group sport or activity, make sure your dog is obedience trained in the basics and is socialized to people and other dogs.
Then check out these great organizations to give your dog a job!

Basic Obedience and Problem Solving
Paws Up--Carl Lopez 505-681-4606

Obedience, Agility, Tracking and Herding:
In Albuquerque
Albuquerque Canine College--505-275-6623
Sandia Dog Obedience Club--505-888-4221
Southwest Agility Team--Linda Johns,

In Santa Fe:
Paw Print Kennels--505-471-7194

High Desert Sundogs--Liz Goldwin,
North American Flyball Association

Weight Pull:
Samara Weidner, Coordinator, Region 9 International Weight Pull Association--

Search and Rescue:
Federal Emergency Management Agency
National Association of Search and Rescue

Delta Society
Therapy Dogs, Inc.

Santa Fe:
Desert Academy