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Letting Dogs Be Who They Are

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

dog tilting head as though listening
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?


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