Last updated: April 19, 2021. Originally published: May 5, 2013.
It’s almost dawn. I am rudely awoken when something slobbery and Frisbee-shaped is dropped on my head. I open one eye to find Merlin’s face inches from mine, his adorable fuzzy features set in a stern expression. “Hey jerkwad,” he says, “wake up. It’s an emergency!”
“What kind of emergency?”
“That’s not an emergency. And you’re not allowed to be bored at 4:30 in the morning. We’ve talked about this.”
Dramatic sigh. “But I will surely DIE if you don’t come play with me RIGHT THIS INSTANT.”
“Fine. Then I will lie here and gnaw on this beef bone really loudly for the next two hours.”
This exchange is a helpful reminder that I’ve been working too hard and neglecting the dogs too much. Most days, Merlin is content to sleep in til noon. But he is a member of one of the most energetic and intelligent breeds in the world. And when I don’t keep up with his burning need for something cool to do, he won’t hesitate to let me know.
Why Sparky is Bouncing off the Walls: a Brief History of the Working Dog*
Way back in the day when Canis lupus were domesticating themselves, they made their living hanging around human settlements, scavenging local dumps. Slowly, they became part of village life, woven into the landscape like pigeons in Central Park. To reflect this new coziness, they changed their name to Canis lupus familiaris: the Dog.
Once in a while, a villager took a liking to a particular dog. Maybe because it performed some accidentally useful task like keeping varmints out of the cabbage patch or barking at wolves. These favored dogs were afforded the best scraps and human protection, so they were more likely to survive to pass on their accidentally useful genes.
Eventually people realized they had a good thing going. “Let’s make this official,” said Homo sapiens to Canis lupus familaris. “If you come work for me full time, I’ll supply you with plenty of food and breeding opportunities. What do ya think?”
The Dog shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
Dogs became specialists: some were hunters, some were guardians of home and property, some were taught to herd flocks. Others were taken north to haul supplies over snow and ice.
They began to change. They gained bodies built for their jobs and minds fine-tuned to work with their human partners. They were so well-designed for their work that the work was its own reward. They were in it not for the paycheck, but for love of the game.
These specialists became the herding, working, hound, terrier, and sporting groups. Their lives were filled with work that tired their bodies and brains. So their insane energy level and drive were hardly considered a problem.
That is, until humanity outgrew the need for canine assistance with daily survival.
Today, your little pet specialist is snoozing at home in her crate. She has been there for the past five hours while you’re at work and the kids are at school. She’s staring at the front door hoping someone, anyone, for the love of God, will please come home and throw a tennis ball for her.
The Dog Has Lost Her Job – And It’s Driving Everybody Crazy
The above tale explains a problem that anyone who visits an animal shelter will notice: what’s up with all these beautiful young, outgoing dogs abandoned by their owners? It boils down to a misunderstanding; the owner wanted a pet, but the dog wanted to work.
When a highly driven dog gets bored, they go “looking for work,” and they usually pick something people don’t approve of: barking incessantly at passersby, herding the kids, digging up the garden, or turning the sofa into a piece of modern art.
A high energy dog can be a ton of fun. There’s a reason that dogs like border collies, labs, pit bulls and German shepherds are so popular: they love to play and learn and accompany you on all your adventures. But to get to the fun parts, you have to accept the challenges that are part of the deal.
So what do you do if you’ve ended up with one of these rocket-powered dogs?
How to Get Your High-Drive Dog to Calm the $^%@ Down
Step one: Acceptance
Your dog requires a higher-than-average level of exercise and mental stimulation. The sooner you accept, nay, EMBRACE this cold hard fact, the better off you’ll be. If your dog is driving you crazy, look on the bright side: you have a very smart and motivated critter who is just begging to do something awesome with you. Isn’t that why you adopted her in the first place? It can help to look at your dogs “problems” not as problems, but as opportunities in disguise.
Step two: Trade in Sparky’s food bowl for some food puzzle toys
This little red beehive is one of the best things that has ever happened to the Dog. (No, I’m not being paid to say that. You know how some people are like, Apple fanboys? I’m the same way with Kong)
One of the easiest ways to give Sparky a job is to have her work for her dinner. It tires her out mentally and gives her something to do when you aren’t around to provide entertainment. Pour some kibble and treats into a Kong or other puzzle toy and watch her go to town.
Not every dog will get it right away. That doesn’t mean Sparky is stupid, it just means she doesn’t understand the rules yet. A dog who has spent her entire life “scavenging” from a food bowl will be skeptical at first. Start with something real easy: some loose hot dog bits in a Kong. Increase the difficulty as Sparky gets more proficient. As always, set your dog up for success.
Step three: WALKIES! (and then settle down)
When you’re done exercising your dog, it’s very important that she gets a cooling off period. After a workout, high drive dogs are often jazzed up and ready for more. They need a calm, focused task to settle down, or else they can get destructive. This is a good time for obedience training, grooming, or puzzle toys.
A good morning routine goes like this: brisk thirty minute walk, five minute trick training session, pets and praise, and finally, when you leave for work, breakfast served in smart toys.
Step four: Break out the clicker and liver treats
What’s the only thing more exhausting than physical exercise? Mental exercise. A fun way to exercise Sparky’s brain is to teach her basic obedience commands or tricks. You don’t HAVE to use a clicker, but high drive dogs tend to catch on pretty quick and they love the extra challenge.
Enroll in a training class or teach your dog some tricks at home.
Step five: Give that dog a job
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of putting your dog to work. It’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. You don’t have to ship your Siberian husky off to a racing kennel in the Yukon or buy a fishing boat for your Portuguese water dog. Any time you teach your dog something new, and work with her on a regular basis, you are fulfilling her need to work.
How do you know what job is best?
Breed plays a part -a husky or pointer will probably like bikejoring, and a border collie will probably like agility or herding- but it’s not everything. You can also find hints in Sparky’s bad behavior:
The dog who terrorizes your cats can be put to work with something predatory, like lure coursing or Frisbee. A “stubborn” dog who can’t be trained because he’s always sniffing can be taught nose work games. The dog who drives you crazy because she always wants to play when you’re working (or sleeping) might like agility, treiball or freestyle.
The world of dog sports and hobbies is always expanding. You’re bound to find something that you and Sparky will love.
Check out our online course: Focus & Come When Called. With step-by-step instructions and video tutorials, you’ll learn how to get your dog to pay attention to you and looove to come running when called, with just 15 minutes training per day. Click here to learn more.
Yeah, it definitely takes a committed owner to do this stuff. There is no “set it and forget it” with dogs, especially those born to work. By bringing a dog into your life, you are agreeing to provide everything they need to be happy and healthy. Not just food and water and walks and vet visits, but something to DO. Your dog will return the favor by being a great friend and lifelong companion. If you don’t fully live up to your end of the bargain, your dog probably won’t live up to hers.
Make an effort to teach your dog something cool. Not only will she be better behaved, she’ll gain some mad skillz to show off to friends and family and strangers on the internet.
Isn’t that the whole point of dog ownership?
*The history lesson in the intro was adapted (and grossly oversimplified) from Dogs: a New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, an excellent book by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger.