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How to Keep Your Dog Happy and Mentally Healthy?

Mark and Linda were at their wits’ end with their ten-month-old Weimaraner,
Finn. Recently, it just seemed as if he was always looking for something bad to
do. He regularly got into the garbage; he stole and shredded papers. If they left
anything on tables or counters (be it a pen or a ham sandwich), he immediately
grabbed it and chewed it to pieces. The plush squeaky toys they bought him
were disemboweled and turned to piles of fluff in seconds, and he even tore apart
rubber and plastic toys. There were spittle and scrape marks all over their
windows from his jumping and barking at any person or animal who passed by.
They just couldn’t understand it. Finn was sweet as a little puppy, easy to
housetrain, and the star of his puppy obedience class; he learned new things so
fast! They took him for walks around the neighborhood once a day and let him
out in their small yard for bathroom duties two to three times a day.
They had thought this would be a great time to get a puppy, because Linda
worked from home and the dog wouldn’t be alone all day. Weimaraners are so
beautiful with their shiny silver coat and blue or golden eyes; Mark and Linda
hadn’t thought about the breed’s behavioral tendencies. Now Linda was
becoming increasingly overwhelmed by having to juggle her “real” work and
attempts to minimize Finn’s destruction. Both Mark and Linda were convinced
that even when Finn appeared calm and well behaved, he was really plotting his
next acts of vandalism.
Mark and Linda’s situation is not unique. In fact, cute little puppies often
grow up to be unruly adolescents between six months and two years (or more) of
age. Owners confronted with this sort of situation frequently surrender these
dogs to shelters; they never expect a dog to be this much work. Nor can they
figure out how to fix problem behaviors like barking, jumping, pawing, and
mouthing—behaviors that were adorable in a fifteen-pound, squeaky-voiced,
uncoordinated bundle of fur with gangly legs and baby teeth. But now, at sixtyplus pounds, a sinewy, agile, strong-jawed, house-destroying barking machine,
Finn is no longer cute.
Although Mark and Linda thought they were providing for Finn’s needs by
walking him and letting him out in the yard, this simply wasn’t enough physical
and mental activity for this type of dog at this age. What they saw as random
acts of destruction were simply Finn engaging in normal play and investigation
of his environment. What they saw as nuisance barking was Finn unable to
contain his excitement when he saw animals and people with whom he wanted
to interact.
What they saw as destroying dog toys, Finn saw as appropriate and, most
importantly, fun use of the objects given to him. Finn wasn’t plotting anything
and didn’t want to be a bad dog. He was bred to go out hunting all day, not to sit
around waiting for something to happen. Finn was at his physical peak and had a
keen, busy mind and strong motivation to seek out interesting things. He just
needed something to do with himself.
Pet owners today lead busy lives. It is uncommon for people to be at home all
day, every day, with their dog, and if they are, they are not usually free to
provide continuous canine entertainment. Humans expect their pets to learn
certain rules of the home: not barking excessively, not stealing or destroying
objects that aren’t theirs. We require our dogs to follow a routine we set for their
food, water, bathroom opportunities, and exercise, and then we expect them to
spend the remainder of their time resting and out of trouble. But these are not
realistic expectations.
Dogs, depending on their life stage, breed or mix, and personality, will have
different needs for exercise, attention, and mental stimulation. A puppy or young
adult will usually be more “busy” than an older dog. While individuals within a
breed can vary, a dog bred for hunting (such as a Weimaraner) or for herding
(such as a Border Collie) will often be more physically active than one bred to
sit with his owner all day (such as a Pug). That being said, some toy breeds are
actually very active and need lots of attention, and some lines of hunting dogs
are low-key and able to lounge around all day. However, some dogs are built to
spend the entire day working outside with their owner, and they have the
physical ability and energy required for constant thinking and moving for hours.
Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that more active dogs are
simply unable to make do with a leash walk and a few brief outings in the yard.
Little wonder that they get into trouble in the house.
Facts, Not Fiction
Dogs are living beings with behavioral and emotional needs as well as basic
physical needs. These needs don’t go away because we are busy or distracted.
Dogs can become bored or frustrated when they lack stimulation; they can also
become stressed or overreactive when they have too much to do or too much of
the wrong kind of mental stimulation. Either can lead to problem behaviors.
Just like people, dogs are individuals with different energy levels, interests,
and physical abilities—all factors that determine what sorts and amounts of
enrichment will be right for any given dog. Dogs need both mental stimulation
and physical exercise. One can make up for the other to a certain extent, but
most dogs need both, so more exercise won’t necessarily fulfill all a dog’s needs.
Mental stimulation can be provided in many ways. For example, social
interactions with people or animals require mental energy; these can be low-key
interactions, such as walking together, meeting new individuals, play, or training.
Investigating an environment also requires mental and sometimes physical
energy. Investigating their surroundings is important to dogs. Dogs do this with
their nose by sniffing, with their mouth by chewing or eating, with their paws by
scratching or digging, with their ears by listening, and with their eyes by
looking.
Looking is last on that list for a reason. Dogs are “paws-on” creatures;
preliminary investigations may be visual, but activities that involve direct
contact with a subject of interest are better. Dogs evolved as scavengers and
hunters. When we think of them this way, it makes sense that they have a
hardwired need to check out their environment.

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