Letting Dogs Be Who They Are

Sierra hears a mouse

I was recently chatting with Judy Fridono, the founder of Puppy Prodigies. The organization employs a neo-natal and early learning program to prepare puppies to become assistance dogs. They specialize in working with the pups from birth through 7-12 weeks, and the training they do at such a young age is impressive! If all pups were raised this way, there would be fewer canine behavior problems out there.

One of the dogs who was slated to be an assistance dog was Ricochet. But at nine months she showed an interest in chasing critters, and although the issue was worked through, she was not considered a good match for the program. Ricochet had shown such good balance and coordination during her training, though, that Judy introduced her to balancing on a boogie board in a kiddie pool. Ricochet enjoyed it, and Judy worked with her using clicker training on proper position, ignoring distractions, and other skills that eventually led to teaching her to surf in the ocean. You might have seen the video that went viral on the internet a while back, but if not, you can click here to see it as well as others featuring this pooch’s mad skills. (Warning: you might want to have a Kleenex handy when watching Ricochet’s story!) Ricochet now raises money for various charities, which is wonderful. But to me, the most impressive thing is that Judy, instead of simply seeing a puppy with a behavior problem, also saw the potential to tune into what Ricochet really enjoyed and was good at, and allowed the pup’s natural instincts and abilities to be engaged in a safe, fun, productive way.

I’ve thought about this issue often, particularly when I see owners trying to get their dogs to participate in activities the dogs clearly aren’t into, or aren’t well suited for. I’ve seen people doing Schutzhund with their dogs, where the dogs don’t have the necessary drive for it; or, agility dogs who don’t seem to be enjoying navigating the obstacles and show stress signals throughout their runs. Even at the dog park—or maybe especially at the dog park—I often see dogs who would clearly prefer to be elsewhere. These dogs keep to themselves, don’t engage in play, and don’t appreciate it when other dogs approach. Socializing with other dogs is just not their thing and yet, because their owners use the dog park as their own socialization opportunity, the dogs mill around unhappily, when they’d most likely prefer to be walking along with their owner outside the park, sniffing and exploring.

Sierra has that same urge to chase critters that Ricochet has. I’m sure that in Sierra’s mind, dog heaven is a vast plain filled with endless running bunnies, leaping lizards, and squirrely squirrels. Of course, we can’t allow her to run around killing unsuspecting critters, but at the same time, we want her to enjoy herself and be who she is. And a hunter/predator is who she is, in a big way. I’ve thought of taking her to K9 Nosework classes, since it’s a fabulous sport that engages a dog’s sense of smell and their tracking skills. Sierra would excel at it. But to be honest with myself, I have to admit that although I think I would enjoy it, if I could ask Sierra, she’d say it’s a much less exciting prospect than the other option we’ve chosen.

As some of you know, my husband C.C. and I each take one of the dogs out in the mornings before he heads to work. Whichever dog I have gets to walk around the park, do some training, and perhaps run in the dog park (if there are no other dogs around, or one we know). The dog who goes with C.C. gets a run through the arroyo, which is filled with jackrabbits, lizards, and other critters. (In the winter when the rattlesnakes are gone, the scenario takes place in the mountains behind our house instead.) He puts Sierra (or Bodhi) on a long line and keeps up with them, so as to allow them to actually chase their “prey.” He does not, however, let them catch anything. Still, Sierra loves it. Her eyes gleam, she pants in excitement, and you can just tell she’s exactly where she wants to be in the world at that moment, doing what she most loves to do.

Wouldn’t it be a sad world if you were never allowed to do the things you most love to do? We all have ideas about activities we’d like to do with our dogs. But if we really stop to consider what they like to do, we can enrich their lives in new and meaningful ways. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

Facebook: NicoleJWilde or NicoleWilde,Author Twitter: @NicoleWilde

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10 Responses to Letting Dogs Be Who They Are

  1. Michelle says:

    Excellent blog! I really wanted to do agility with my dog even though her personality didn’t QUITE seem to fit. So I thought I’d try a couple classes and if she clearly didn’t enjoy it, we’d be done. Imagine my surprise when she did actually enjoy class and can’t wait to go!

    I also let her chase (but not catch!) squirrels and chipmunks and I let her attempt to herd the (wild) geese (who always fly away from her). I can’t imagine not letting her enjoy those things!

  2. Holly Lewis says:

    Great post! Reminds me of Suzanne Clothier’s talk at the APDT conference to ask a dog “How is this for you??” What are they really saying?? Holly Lewis|dogtrainermilwaukee

  3. […] Wilde About Dogs This entry was posted in Articles and tagged Dogs, Letting, They. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Alpha Roll […]

  4. tamandra says:

    LOVE this post! I’m so for letting a dog be who they are, too. Judy is awesome and so is Ric! Even though I trained my guy as an Assistance dog, I can so tell when he isn’t enjoying something, or isn’t into something, because he’s allowed to express that. Communication goes both ways 🙂

  5. Jill Sessa says:

    This made my day!!! I have a 3.5 pound yorkie mix who’s idea of dog heaven is a sea of full size tennis balls!
    I write on this subject for humans… you’ve inspired me to do a post today, I hope you don’t mind me linking to this great article from my blog at http://askjillsessa.com

  6. Sarah says:

    This is always something I think about as I work with my shy dog. Finding the balance between training and just letting her run around in nature where she is confident and happy. Thanks so much for all you do to help us with challenges!

  7. Bill says:

    I also really appreciate this post. My girl has always been a shy dog and occasionally reactive to strange dogs although she has come a very long way during our five years together. She has about a half dozen doggie friends in the neighborhood and that seems just fine for her. I would personally love if she were “Lassie” and I could take her anywhere and she would be a social butterfly, but she’s not and I’ve managed to not cave into pressure from other trainers to continue working “on her”. I think there are other activities she might enjoy, such as nose works and we’ll give it a go, but I’ve decided to let her be the guide on which directions our journey together will take.

  8. So very well said Nicole. So many times my dogs have shown me what they really want and I’ve been wise enough to actually capture some of it and turn it into some wonderful behaviors!

  9. Yukari says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the story! I took my very reactive dog to a dog park where a few agility equipment were set up yesterday when there were nobody in the park. And I found out that she is a fearless, confident dog who can pass the agility equipment with flying colors! I avoided altogether to go to dog park, public places, and taking group lessons because I was afraid anything could trigger her to reacts. But now I know what she truly enjoys and I can set up agility equipment at our yard and have lots of fun with her for now. and hopefully someday, she can join a group class that offers agility, but I’m OK if she’s just an agility champion in our back yard, too! 🙂

  10. Cheryl says:

    My pup loves running around at the dog park but doesn’t like it when other dogs get in his face. He is a little guy so sometimes big dogs make him uncomfortable. I still take him because his enjoyment seems to outweigh his fears, for the most part. I also have a squirrel feeder in my backyard that keeps the squirrel away from the bird feeder but also for the primary purpose of providing fun chasing opportunities for the dog. He’ll never catch any of them but he loves to try. The other day there were 6 squirrels in the yard at the same time. He was going crazy chasing them.

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